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He Fell Ill on a Cruise. Before He Boarded the Rescue Boat, They Handed Him the Bill.

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Bram Sable-Smith
Wed, 22 May 2024 09:00:00 +0000

Vincent Wasney and his fiancée, Sarah Eberlein, had never the ocean. They'd never even been on a plane. But when they bought their first home in Saginaw, Michigan, in 2018, their real estate agent gifted them tickets for a Royal Caribbean cruise.

After two years of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, they set sail in December 2022.

The couple chose a cruise destined for the Bahamas in part because it included a trip to CocoCay, a private island accessible to Royal Caribbean passengers that featured a water park, balloon rides, and an excursion swimming with pigs.

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It was on that day on CocoCay when Wasney, 31, started feeling off, he said.

The next morning, as the couple made plans in their cabin for the last full day of the trip, Wasney made a pained noise. Eberlein saw him having a seizure in bed, with blood coming out of his mouth from biting his tongue. She opened their door to find and happened upon another guest, who roused his wife, an emergency room physician.

Wasney was able to climb into a wheelchair brought by the ship's medical crew to take him down to the medical facility, where he was given anticonvulsants and fluids and monitored before being released.

Wasney had had seizures in the past, starting about 10 years ago, but it had been a while since his last one. Imaging back then showed no tumors, and doctors concluded he was likely epileptic, he said. He took medicine initially, but after two years without another seizure, he said, his doctors took him off the medicine to avoid liver damage.

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Wasney had a second seizure on the ship a few hours later, back in his cabin. This time he stopped breathing, and Eberlein remembered his lips being so purple, they almost looked black. Again, she ran to find help but, in her haste, locked herself out. By the time the ship's medical team got into the cabin, Wasney was breathing again but had broken blood vessels along his chest and neck that he later said resembled tiger stripes.

Wasney was in the ship's medical center when he had a third seizure — a grand mal, which typically causes a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. By then, the ship was close enough to port that Wasney could be evacuated by rescue boat. He was put on a stretcher to be lowered by ropes off the side of the ship, with Eberlein climbing down a rope ladder to join him.

But before they disembarked, the bill came.

The Patient: Vincent Wasney, 31, who was uninsured at the time.

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Medical Services: General and enhanced observation, a blood test, anticonvulsant medicine, and a fee for services performed outside the medical facility.

Service Provider: Independence of the Seas Medical Center, the on-ship medical facility on the cruise ship operated by Royal Caribbean International.

Total Bill: $2,500.22.

What Gives: As part of Royal Caribbean's guest terms, cruise passengers “agree to pay in full” all expenses incurred on board by the end of the cruise, those related to medical care. In addition, Royal Caribbean does not accept “land-based” insurance plans.

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Wasney said he was surprised to learn that, along with other charges like wireless internet, Royal Caribbean required he pay his medical bills before exiting the ship — even though he was being evacuated urgently.

“Are we being held hostage at this point?” Eberlein remembered asking. “Because, obviously, if he's had three seizures in 10 hours, it's an issue.”

Wasney said he has little memory of being on the ship after his first seizure — seizures often victims groggy and disoriented for a few hours afterward.

But he certainly remembers being shown a bill, the bulk of which was the $2,500.22 in medical charges, while waiting for the rescue boat.

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Still groggy, Wasney recalled saying he couldn't afford that and a cruise employee responding: “How much can you pay?”

They drained their bank accounts, including money saved for their next house payment, and maxed out Wasney's credit card but were still about $1,000 short, he said.

Ultimately, they were to leave the ship. He later learned his card was overdrafted to cover the shortfall, he said.

Royal Caribbean International did not respond to multiple inquiries from KFF Health .

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Once on land, in Florida, Wasney was taken by ambulance to the emergency room at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, where he incurred thousands of dollars more in medical expenses.

He still isn't entirely sure what caused the seizures.

On the ship he was told it could have been extreme dehydration — and he said he does remember being extra thirsty on CocoCay. He also has mused whether trying escargot for the first time the night before could have played a role. Eberlein's mother is convinced the episode was connected to swimming with pigs, he said. And not to be discounted, Eberlein accidentally broke a pocket mirror three days before their trip.

Wasney, who works in a stone , was uninsured when they set sail. He said that one month before they embarked on their voyage, he finally felt he could afford the health plan offered through his employer and signed up, but the plan didn't start until January 2023, after their return.

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They also lacked travel insurance. As inexperienced travelers, Wasney said, they thought it was for lost luggage and canceled trips, not unexpected medical expenses. And because the cruise was a gift, they were never prompted to buy coverage, which often happens when tickets are purchased.

The Resolution: Wasney said the couple returned to Saginaw with essentially no money in their bank account, several thousand dollars of medical debt, and no idea how they would cover their mortgage payment. Because he was uninsured at the time of the cruise, Wasney did not try to collect reimbursement for the cruise bill from his new health plan when his coverage began weeks later.

The couple set up payment plans to cover the medical bills for Wasney's care after leaving the ship: one each with two doctors he saw at Broward Health, who billed separately from the hospital, and one with the ambulance company. He also made payments on a bill with Broward Health itself. Those plans do not charge interest.

But Broward Health said Wasney missed two payments to the hospital, and that bill was ultimately sent to collections.

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In a statement, Broward Health spokesperson Nina Levine said Wasney's bill was reduced by 73% because he was uninsured.

“We do everything in our power to provide the best care with the least financial impact, but also cannot stress enough the importance of taking advantage of private and Affordable Care Act health insurance plans, as well as travel insurance, to lower risks associated with unplanned medical issues,” she said.

The couple was able to make their house payment with $2,690 they raised through a GoFundMe campaign that Wasney set up. Wasney said a lot of that help came from as well as friends he met playing disc golf, a sport he picked up during the pandemic.

“A bunch of people came through for us,” Wasney said, still moved to tears by the generosity. “But there's still the hospital bill.”

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The Takeaway: Billing practices differ by cruise line, but Joe Scott, chair of the cruise ship medicine section of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said medical charges are typically added to a cruise passenger's onboard account, which must be paid before leaving the ship. Individuals can then submit receipts to their insurers for possible reimbursement.

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He recommended that those planning to take a cruise purchase travel insurance that specifically covers their trips. “This will facilitate reimbursement if they do incur charges and potentially cover a costly medical evacuation if needed,” Scott said.

Royal Caribbean suggests that passengers who receive onboard care submit their paid bills to their health insurer for possible reimbursement. Many health plans do not cover medical services received on cruise ships, however. Medicare will sometimes cover medically necessary health care services on cruise ships, but not if the ship is more than six hours away from a U.S. port.

Travel insurance can be designed to address lots of out-of-town mishaps, like lost baggage or even transportation and lodging for a loved one to visit if a traveler is hospitalized.

Travel medical insurance, as well as plans that offer “emergency evacuation and repatriation,” are two types that can specifically assist with medical emergencies. Such plans can be purchased individually. Credit cards may offer travel medical insurance among their , as well.

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But travel insurance plans come with limitations. For instance, they may not cover care associated with preexisting conditions or what the plans consider “risky” activities, such as rock climbing. Some plans also require that travelers file first with their primary health insurance before seeking reimbursement from travel insurance.

As with other insurance, be sure to read the fine print and understand how reimbursement works.

Wasney said that's what they plan to do before their next Royal Caribbean cruise. They'd like to go back to the Bahamas on basically the same trip, he said — there's a lot about CocoCay they didn't get to explore.

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KFF Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

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——————————
By: Bram Sable-Smith
Title: He Fell Ill on a Cruise. Before He Boarded the Rescue Boat, They Handed Him the Bill.
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/surprise-bill-cruise-ship-seizures-travel-insurance/
Published Date: Wed, 22 May 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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Indiana Weighs Hospital Monopoly as Officials Elsewhere Scrutinize Similar Deals

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Samantha Liss
Fri, 14 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Locals in this city of 58,000 are used to having to wait at railroad crossings for one of the dozens of daily cargo trains to pass through.

But a proposed merger between the two hospitals on either side of the city could exacerbate the problem in emergencies if the hospitals shut down some services, such as trauma care, at one site, which the proposal cites as a possibility. Tom High, fire chief of a nearby township, said some first responders would be forced to transport critical patients farther, risking longer delays, if they become what locals call “railroaded” by a passing train.

That's just one of the fears in this community as Indiana review whether to allow Union Hospital, licensed as a 341-bed facility, to purchase the county's only other acute care hospital, the 278-bed Terre Haute Regional Hospital. The proposed deal also raises concerns about reduced tax revenue, worsening care, and higher prices.

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Within the next few months, the Indiana Department of must find “clear evidence” that the proposed merger would improve health outcomes, access, and the quality of care. Those must “outweigh any potential disadvantages.”

As the nation's industry has become more concentrated amid a steady clip of mergers in recent decades, it's common for one large system to dominate a market. In this case, the deal would be Indiana's first merger under the COPA law, short for Certificate of Public Advantage, that the state enacted in 2021. Such laws allow deals that the Federal Trade Commission otherwise considers illegal because they reduce competition and often create monopolies. To mitigate the negative effects of a monopoly, the merged hospitals typically agree to conditions imposed by state regulators.

Union Hospital leaders said it's time to move “beyond competition” for the sake of the region, which has struggled to keep jobs and raise expectancy rates. Hospital spokesperson Neil Garrison said the merger would ultimately improve care, increase access, and cut costs. Leaders of Regional Hospital, which is owned by for-profit chain HCA Healthcare, did not respond to questions about the proposal.

One unusual implication arises, though: If the merger is approved, the surrounding county would lose tax revenue from one of its larger businesses. Union Hospital, which as a nonprofit is exempt from paying taxes, would be acquiring tax-paying Terre Haute Regional, which paid roughly $508,000 in county taxes for 2023, said Vigo County Auditor Jim Bramble. That's the equivalent of the starting salaries of about nine sheriff's deputies, per the county's $83 million 2024 budget.

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Garrison said the hospital system is aware of the tax implications for the county and is “exploring opportunities” to address it.

Meanwhile, Roland Kohr, formerly a pathologist at Regional and a county coroner, frets about erasing competition that forced the hospitals to add services or match the other. “The push to introduce new technologies, to recruit more physicians, that may not happen,” he said.

The FTC has urged states to avoid COPAs, pointing to research that found they “have resulted in significant price increases and contributed to declines in quality of care.” The fallout of similar mergers has triggered federal sanctions in North Carolina and pushback from locals and legislators in Tennessee.

“A merged hospital system that faces little remaining competition after the merger usually has little incentive to follow through with its promises because patients have no other choice,” wrote Chris Garmon, a University of Missouri-Kansas City economist who has studied COPA mergers, in a warning to Indiana health officials about the proposed merger.

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Indiana already has among the highest hospital prices in the country, according to a study by the Rand Corp. research organization. The Indiana Legislature spent the past year to rein in prices. Gloria Sachdev, CEO of Indianapolis-based Employers' Forum of Indiana, which pushed for those pricing limits on behalf of frustrated business leaders, is worried a Union-Regional merger would undo those gains and raise prices further.

Indiana's COPA restricts how much the hospital could increase charges, Garrison said.

Elsewhere, the largest COPA-created hospital system in the country, Ballad Health, has reported that the time patients spend in its ERs in Virginia and Tennessee before being hospitalized has more than tripled, reaching nearly 11 hours, in the six years since that monopoly of 20 hospitals formed. Still, Tennessee has awarded Ballad top marks even when certain quality metrics, its ER speed, fall below established benchmarks.

Ballad Health spokesperson Molly Luton said the system's performance has improved since those statistics were gathered.

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Last fall, some Tennesseans unsuccessfully urged a county board to call on the state to better regulate the hospital system. This spring, state lawmakers refused to hear testimony from residents who drove five hours to Nashville to testify for a bill that sought to limit future COPA mergers in the state — which ultimately didn't make it to a full vote.

Problems have also occurred when a COPA — and its oversight — are removed, leaving the merged hospital system as an “unregulated monopoly.” After North Carolina repealed its COPA in 2015, a subsidiary of HCA Healthcare bought Mission Health, a COPA-created monopoly in Asheville, for $1.5 billion in 2019. The monopoly in Asheville remained but none of the COPA's conditions applied to the new owner.

Last year, government inspectors found “deficiencies” at Mission Health that contributed to four patient deaths and posed an “immediate jeopardy” to patients' health and safety, according to the 384-page federal inspection . North Carolina Joshua Stein sued HCA's subsidiary last year, alleging the ER was “significantly degraded,” and that the company failed to maintain certain critical services, including oncology care, a violation of a purchase agreement Stein's office negotiated with it because the company acquired a nonprofit.

HCA said it promptly addressed the issues and denied Stein's allegations in its legal response to the ongoing lawsuit, arguing it has expanded services since its purchase. HCA also argued that the agreement is silent about maintaining the quality of care.

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Back in Indiana, Union Hospital laid the groundwork for its merger more than three years ago when its leaders provided the language for COPA legislation to then-state Sen. Jon Ford, a Republican in Terre Haute, believing he would be “the best champion for this proposal,” according to legislative testimony from Taylor Hollenbeck, an RJL consultant on the merger. Ford, listed on the legislature's site as the bill's co-author, did not respond to requests for comment.

Union CEO Steve Holman testified in the bill's hearings that the county's public health rankings — with an average life expectancy ranking 68th out of 92 counties in the state — should be a “call to action” to do something “big and bold.”

Terre Haute Mayor Brandon Sakbun agrees the merger could help what he called the county's “abysmal” public health statistics. Last year, he was elected the city's youngest mayor at age 27 on a promise to “turn Terre Haute around.” The region's workforce has steadily declined and local leaders have pinned their hopes on a new casino and a manufacturer of battery parts for electric vehicles to reverse this trend.

Sakbun's father is an OB-GYN at Union, but the mayor said that doesn't color his opinion and that he supports the hospital merger despite the loss of the tax base. He believes it will help recruit medical and other professionals to an area that has struggled to attract top talent.

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“Do I believe that this is the one that bucks the research?” Sakbun said. “I truthfully do.”

KFF Health News correspondent Brett Kelman contributed to this article.

——————————
By: Samantha Liss
Title: Indiana Weighs Hospital Monopoly as Officials Elsewhere Scrutinize Similar Deals
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/indiana-copa-hospital-monopoly-scrutiny/
Published Date: Fri, 14 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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California Lawmakers Preserve Aid to Older, Disabled Immigrants

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Vanessa G. Sánchez
Fri, 14 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

California lawmakers on Thursday passed a 2024-25 budget that rejected Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposal to cut in-home supportive services for low-income older, blind, and disabled immigrants lacking legal residency. However, the Democratic governor has not said whether he'll use his line-item veto authority to close the state's $45 billion deficit.

The , controlled by Democrats, passed a $211 general fund spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 by drawing more from the state's rainy-day fund and reducing corporate tax deductions to prevent cuts to and social services.

“Our legislative budget plan achieves those goals with targeted, carefully calibrated investments in safety-net programs that protect our most vulnerable,” said Assembly member Jesse Gabriel, chair of the Assembly's budget committee, voting in Sacramento.

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Newsom and lawmakers are expected to continue talks.

“What was approved represents a two-house agreement between the Senate and the Assembly – not an agreement with the governor,” said state Department of Finance spokesperson H.D. Palmer. “We've made good progress, but there's still more work to do.”

Newsom had proposed eliminating the new in-home benefit for qualified immigrants to save nearly $95 million in the next fiscal year, with no plans to bring it back. Lawmakers not only rejected Newsom's cut to the in-home services program; they also refused the governor's proposal to slash $300 million a year from public health agencies. However, they accepted delaying food assistance to low-income older immigrants without legal residency.

The In-Home Supportive Services program helps low-income older, blind, and disabled individuals care in their homes, which helps keep them out of more costly nursing and residential facilities. The program works by paying $16 to $21 an hour to caregivers, many of them members.

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Advocates applauded lawmakers for rejecting the cut. They had urged the governor to adopt the legislature's budget, arguing the state could end up paying more in the long run as Medi-Cal recipients tap nursing services. The state has estimated the annual per-person cost of nursing homes is $124,189, compared with the roughly $28,000 average cost for people without legal residency in the in-home services program.

“These individuals would need to essentially go into costly hospital or nursing care,” said Ronald Coleman Baeza, managing policy director at the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. “It's not only cruel for undocumented immigrants, but it doesn't make sense as a fiscal decision either.”

The governor has said he's to maintain fiscal discipline while preserving Medi-Cal benefits for immigrants. California was the first state to expand Medicaid eligibility to all qualified immigrants regardless of legal status, phasing it in over several years: children in 2016, adults ages 19-26 in 2020, people 50 and older in 2022, and all remaining adults this year.

“It's a core of I think who we are as a state, and we should be as a nation,” Newsom said in May.

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As part of the Medi-Cal expansion, the state authorized nearly 3,000 older, blind, and disabled immigrants without legal residency to access paramedical services and care, including meal preparation, bathing, feeding, and transportation to medical appointments. Advocates estimate 17,000 immigrants qualify.

“Fixing California's deficit means making tough choices, so the Assembly came to these negotiations focused on preserving programs that matter most to Californians,” said Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, a Central Coast Democrat, in an earlier statement.

Lawmakers did agree to Newsom's proposal to delay around $165 a month in food assistance to low-income immigrants without legal residency ages 55 and older. Lawmakers had approved the benefit two years ago, but the governor proposed delaying it by two fiscal years to 2027.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

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——————————
By: Vanessa G. Sánchez
Title: California Lawmakers Preserve Aid to Older, Disabled Immigrants
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/california-lawmakers-aid-immigrants-in-home-services-budget-newsom/
Published Date: Fri, 14 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: SCOTUS Rejects Abortion Pill Challenge — For Now 

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Thu, 13 Jun 2024 18:50:00 +0000

The Host

Julie Rovner
KFF Health


@jrovner


Read Julie's stories.

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Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News' weekly health policy news , “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “ and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

A unanimous Supreme Court turned back a challenge to the FDA's approval and rules for the pill mifepristone, finding that the anti-abortion doctor group that sued lacked standing to do so. But abortion foes have other ways they intend to curtail availability of the pill, which is commonly used in medication abortions, which now make up nearly two-thirds of abortions in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is proposing regulations that would bar credit agencies from medical debt on individual credit reports. And former , signaling that drug prices remain a potent campaign issue, attempts to take credit for the $35-a-month cap on insulin for Medicare beneficiaries — which was backed and signed into law by Biden.

This week's panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News, Rachana Pradhan of KFF Health News, and Emmarie Huetteman of KFF Health News.

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Panelists

Anna Edney
Bloomberg


@annaedney


Read Anna's stories.

Emmarie Huetteman
KFF Health News

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@emmarieDC


Read Emmarie's stories.

Rachana Pradhan
KFF Health News


@rachanadpradhan

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Read Rachana's stories.

Among the takeaways from this week's episode:

  • All nine Supreme Court justices on June 13 rejected a challenge to the abortion pill mifepristone, ruling the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue. But that may not be the last word: The leaves open the possibility that different plaintiffs — including three states already part of the case — could raise a similar challenge in the future, and that the court could then vote to block access to the pill.
  • As the presidential race heats up, and former President Donald Trump are angling for health care voters. The Biden administration this week proposed eliminating all medical debt from Americans' credit scores, which would expand on the previous, voluntary move by the major credit agencies to erase from credit reports medical bills under $500. Meanwhile, Trump continues to court vaccine skeptics and wrongly claimed credit for Medicare's $35 monthly cap on insulin — enacted under a law backed and signed by Biden.
  • Problems are compounding at the pharmacy counter. Pharmacists and drugmakers are reporting the highest numbers of drug shortages in more than 20 years. And independent pharmacists in particular say they are struggling to keep drugs on the shelves, pointing to a recent Biden administration policy change that reduces costs for seniors — but also cash flow for pharmacies.
  • And the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest branch of Protestantism, voted this week to restrict the use of in vitro fertilization. As evidenced by recent flip-flopping stances on abortion, Republican candidates are feeling pressed to satisfy a wide range of perspectives within even their own party.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KFF president and Drew Altman about KFF's new “Health Policy 101” primer. You can learn more about it here.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: HuffPost's “How America's Mental Health Crisis Became This Family's Worst Nightmare,” by Jonathan Cohn.

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Anna Edney: Stat News' “Four Tops Singer's Lawsuit Says He Visited ER for Chest Pain, Ended Up in Straitjacket,” by Tara Bannow.

Rachana Pradhan: The New York Times' “Abortion Groups Say Tech Companies Suppress Posts and Accounts,” by Emily Schmall and Sapna Maheshwari.

Emmarie Huetteman: CBS News' “As FDA Urges Crackdown on Bird Flu in Raw Milk, Some States Say Their Hands Are Tied,” by Alexander Tin.

Also mentioned on this week's podcast:

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Credits

Francis Ying
Audio producer

Emmarie Huetteman
Editor

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to KFF Health News' “What the Health?” on SpotifyApple PodcastsPocket Casts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

——————————
Title: KFF Health News' ‘What the Health?': SCOTUS Rejects Abortion Pill Challenge — For Now 
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/podcast/what-the-health-351-supreme-court-abortion-pill-mifepristone-june-13-2024/
Published Date: Thu, 13 Jun 2024 18:50:00 +0000

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