After Medical Bills Broke the Bank, This Family Headed to Mexico for Care

The Fierro household of Yuma, Arizona, had a string of dangerous medical luck that began in December 2020.

That’s when Jesús Fierro Sr. was admitted to the hospital with a severe covid-19 an infection. He spent 18 days at Yuma Regional Medical Heart, the place he misplaced 60 kilos. He got here house weak and depending on an oxygen tank.

Then, in June 2021, his spouse, Claudia, fainted whereas ready for a desk on the native Olive Backyard. She felt dizzy one minute and was in an ambulance on her technique to the identical medical middle the subsequent. She was advised her magnesium ranges have been low and was despatched house inside 24 hours.

The household has medical insurance via Jesús Sr.’s job. But it surely didn’t defend the Fierros from owing hundreds of {dollars}. So, when their son Jesús Fierro Jr. dislocated his shoulder, the Fierros — who hadn’t but paid the payments for their very own care — opted out of U.S. well being care and headed south to the U.S.-Mexico border.

And no different payments got here for a minimum of one member of the household.

The Sufferers: Jesús Fierro Sr., 48; Claudia Fierro, 51; and Jesús Fierro Jr., 17. The household has Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas medical insurance via Jesús Sr.’s employment with NOV Inc., previously Nationwide Oilwell Varco, a multinational oil firm.

Medical Providers: For Jesús Sr., 18 days of inpatient take care of a extreme covid an infection. For Claudia, lower than 24 hours of emergency care after fainting. For Jesús Jr., a walk-in appointment for a dislocated shoulder.

Whole Payments: Jesús Sr. was charged $3,894.86. The overall invoice was $107,905.80 for covid therapy. Claudia was charged $3,252.74, together with $202.36 for therapy from an out-of-network doctor. The overall invoice was $13,429.50 for lower than a day of therapy. Jesús Jr. was charged about $5 (70 pesos) for an outpatient go to that the household paid in money.

Service Suppliers: Yuma Regional Medical Center, a 406-bed, nonprofit hospital in Yuma, Arizona. It’s within the Fierros’ insurance coverage community. And a non-public physician’s workplace in Mexicali, Mexico, which isn’t.

The Fierros have been strapped by unusually excessive medical payments from the Yuma Regional Medical Heart.(Lisa Hornak for KHN)

What Provides: The Fierros have been trapped in a scenario that an increasing number of Individuals discover themselves in: They’re what some specialists time period “functionally uninsured.” They’ve insurance coverage — on this case, via Jesús Sr.’s job, which pays $72,000 a 12 months. However their well being plan is dear, and so they don’t have the liquid savings to pay their “share” of the invoice. The Fierros’ plan says their out-of-pocket most is $8,500 a 12 months for the household. And in a rustic the place even a brief keep in an emergency room is billed at a staggering sum, meaning minor encounters with the medical system can take just about all the household’s disposable financial savings, 12 months after 12 months. And that’s why the Fierros opted out.

In keeping with the phrases of the insurance coverage plan, which has a $2,000 household deductible and 20% coinsurance, Jesús Sr. owed $3,894.86 of a complete invoice of practically $110,000 for his covid care in late 2020.

The Fierros are paying off that invoice — $140 a month — and nonetheless owe greater than $2,500. In 2020, most insurers agreed to waive cost-sharing payments for covid-19 therapy after the passage of federal covid relief packages that offered emergency funding to hospitals. However waiving therapy prices was optionally available below the regulation. And though Blue Cross Blue Defend of Texas has a posted policy saying it will waive price sharing via the tip of 2020, the insurer didn’t try this for Jesús Sr.’s invoice. Carrie Kraft, a spokesperson for the insurer, wouldn’t talk about why his covid invoice was not waived.

(Greater than two years into the pandemic and with vaccines now extensively obtainable to cut back the chance of hospitalization and demise, most insurers once more cost sufferers their price sharing.)

On Jan. 1, 2021, the Fierros’ deductible and out-of-pocket most reset. So when Claudia fainted — a reasonably widespread incidence and infrequently indicative of a significant issue — she was despatched by ambulance to the emergency room, leaving the Fierros with one other invoice of greater than $3,000. That type of invoice is a large stress on the typical American household; fewer than half of U.S. adults have sufficient financial savings to cowl a surprise $1,000 expense. In recent polling by KFF, “sudden medical payments” ranked second amongst household funds worries, behind gasoline costs and different transportation prices.

The brand new invoice for a fainting spell destabilized the Fierros’ family funds. “We thought of taking a second mortgage on our home,” stated Jesús Sr., a Los Angeles native. When he referred to as the hospital to ask for monetary help, he stated, individuals he spoke with strongly discouraged him from making use of. “They advised me that I may apply however that it will solely decrease Claudia’s invoice by $100,” he stated.

So when Jesús Jr. dislocated his shoulder boxing along with his brother, the household headed south.

Jesús Sr. requested his son, “Are you able to bear the ache for an hour?” The teenager replied, “Sure.”

Father and son took the hourlong journey to Mexicali, Mexico, to Dr. Alfredo Acosta’s workplace.

The Fierros don’t take into account themselves “well being vacationers.” Jesús Sr. crosses the border into Mexicali day-after-day for his work, and Mexicali is Claudia’s hometown. They’ve been touring to the neighborhood generally known as La Chinesca (“Chinatown”) for years to see Acosta, a common practitioner, who treats the bronchial asthma of their youngest son, Fernando, 15. Remedy for Jesús Jr.’s dislocated shoulder was the primary time that they had sought emergency care from the doctor. The worth was proper, and the therapy efficient.

A go to to a U.S. emergency room possible would have concerned a facility charge, costly X-rays, and maybe an orthopedic specialist’s analysis — which might have generated hundreds of {dollars} in payments. Acosta adjusted Jesús Jr.’s shoulder in order that the bones aligned within the socket and prescribed him ibuprofen for soreness. The household paid money on the spot.

Though the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention doesn’t endorse traveling to another country for medical care, the Fierros are amongst millions of Americans annually who accomplish that. A lot of them are fleeing costly care within the U.S., even with medical insurance.

Acosta, who’s from the Mexican state of Sinaloa and is a graduate of the Autonomous College of Sinaloa, moved to Mexicali 20 years in the past. He witnessed firsthand the expansion of the medical tourism business.

Jesús and Claudia assessment their excessive medical payments. They report paying $1,000 a month for medical insurance premiums but nonetheless owed greater than $7,000 in deductibles and coinsurance after two episodes of care on the native hospital.(Lisa Hornak for KHN)

He sees about 14 sufferers a day (no appointment obligatory), and 30% to 40% of these are from the U.S. He expenses $8 for typical visits.

In Mexicali, a mile from La Chinesca, the place the household docs have their modest places of work, are medical amenities that rival these in the USA. The amenities have worldwide certification and are thought-about costly, however they’re nonetheless cheaper than hospitals within the U.S.

Decision: Each Blue Cross Blue Defend of Texas and Yuma Regional Medical Heart declined to debate the Fierros’ payments with KHN, regardless that Jesús Sr. and Claudia gave written permission for them to take action.

In a press release, Yuma Regional Medical Heart spokesperson Machele Headington stated, “Making use of for monetary assist begins with an utility — a service we prolonged, and nonetheless lengthen, to those sufferers.”

In an e mail, Kraft, the Blue Cross Blue Defend of Texas spokesperson, stated: “We perceive the frustration our members expertise once they obtain a invoice containing COVID-19 expenses that they don’t perceive, or really feel could also be inappropriate.”

The Fierros are planning to use to the hospital for monetary assist for his or her excellent money owed. However Claudia stated by no means once more. “I advised Jesús, ‘If I faint once more, please drive me house,’” quite than calling an ambulance, she stated.

“We pay $1,000 premium month-to-month for our employment-based insurance coverage,” added Jesús. “We should always not must stay with this stress.”

The Takeaway: Remember that your deductible “meter” begins over yearly and that just about any emergency care can generate a invoice within the hundreds of {dollars} and should go away you owing most of your deductible and out-of-pocket most.

Additionally bear in mind that even when you appear to not qualify for monetary help based mostly on a hospital’s coverage, you may apply and clarify your circumstances. Due to the excessive price of care within the U.S., even many middle-income individuals qualify. And plenty of hospitals give their finance departments leeway to regulate payments. Some sufferers uncover that if they provide to pay money on the spot, the invoice might be lowered dramatically.

All nonprofit hospitals have a authorized obligation to assist sufferers: They pay no tax in trade for offering “group profit.” Make a case for your self, and ask for a supervisor when you get an preliminary “no.”

For elective procedures, sufferers can observe the Fierros’ instance, changing into savvy well being care customers. Just lately, Claudia wanted an endoscopy to judge an ulcer. The household has been calling completely different amenities and found a $500 distinction in the price of an endoscopy. They’ll quickly drive to a medical middle in Central Valley, California, two hours from house, for the process.

The Fierros didn’t even take into account going again to their native hospital. “I don’t need to say ‘good day’ and obtain a $3,000 invoice,” joked Jesús Sr.

Stephanie O’Neill contributed the audio portrait with this story.

Invoice of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical payments. Do you might have an attention-grabbing medical invoice you need to share with us? Tell us about it!

This story was produced by KHN (Kaiser Well being Information), a nationwide newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about well being points. Along with Coverage Evaluation and Polling, KHN is likely one of the three main working applications at KFF (Kaiser Household Basis). KFF is an endowed nonprofit group offering data on well being points to the nation.

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