Andy Gee has $72,000 in medical bills following a motorcycle accident with an uninsured driver.
Last year about one in four adults under 65 reported having medical debt, an all-time high for the country. That's because health care costs continue to rise at the same time people are losing their jobs and health coverage.
Kelley Weiss with the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting has the story of one San Francisco man struggling to pay off his medical bills. Reporter: Kelley Weiss
At an intersection just a few blocks from his apartment, Andy Gee's life changed in a split second. Last October he was riding home on his motorcycle and an uninsured driver ran a stop sign and plowed right into him.
As he lay on the ground, he knew the bone sticking out of his leg was really bad. But through the pain, he thought at least I have health coverage.
"I wasn't even worried when I first got the bill," he said. "I thought, eh, insurance is going to take care of this."
He was rushed to San Francisco General Hospital and had emergency surgery. Gee stayed in the hospital for six days, and when he got the bills he was shocked at how much he owed.
Gee's insurance provider, Anthem Blue Cross, said the medical bill charges were above the customary rate and wouldn't pay for all of them. The hospital and physicians' group countered that it was a fair price. This left Gee smack dab in the middle and responsible for the difference: $72,000. He was unemployed and getting over his surgery at the time, but Gee said that didn't stop the medical bills from coming.
Gee said for months he was in denial and just pretended nothing was happening. But now he spends hours each day trying to get help on the bills and to stop the collection notices.
"I've been feeling just so much anger from this whole thing of why did I get hit?" he said. "And then, why are you sending me to collections? Why don't we try to work something out?"
To pay off this debt Gee is worried that he'll have to burn through the savings that he's been living on. He said he hasn't been sleeping well because he's been thinking about how a medical emergency is ruining his credit score.
And as Gee is tossing and turning late at night, he might flip on the TV and find a commercial that promises to "wipe out" his medical debt. There are companies out there that try to negotiate a discounted payment with creditors. But debt counselors like Rob Quinlan, with the nonprofit ClearPoint Financial Solutions, advises against them because they usually charge a fee and there is no guarantee they'll work. Still Quinlan said it's tempting for the quarter of his clients who are struggling with medical debt.
"Because of the recession and unemployment certainly there are those that are having more medical debt and then using what they feel are the options to cover those debts," Quinlan said.
Some of those options include payday loans and credit cards. Quinlan also said it's a bad idea to take on more debt to pay off debt. All of this can be overwhelming, he said, and people then start putting off other bill payments for essential things like food and rent.
"Once you have medical debt that is ongoing it can be a domino effect," he said. When people are faced with this debt they do turn to credit cards. That's according to Mark Rukavina with the health advocacy group, The Access Project. Last year about one in four people used plastic to pay off medical bills, he said.
"What we've seen over the past few years is that people put these medical expenses on their credit cards and often times the problem magnified because of penalties, late fees and interest charged on those bills," Rukavina said.
Rukavina said today medical debt can hit anyone. In fact, about two thirds of people with it had health insurance when they received the care. He said patients with insurance have to pay more in co-pays these days. For those looking to buy health insurance, more people are signing up for plans that offer little coverage because that's all they can afford.
The problem is that medical debt is different than other consumer debt. It affects the poor, the middle class, the young and the old, debt counselor Rob Quinlan said. Then add on a recession and he said it's further compounded.
"I remember as a child my dad used to say, you cannot get blood out of a turnip," he said. "Simply meaning, if you don't have the money to pay debt, you just don't have the money."
This is something people with medical debt understand too well, like Andy Gee. He said he would continue to try and negotiate discounts on his bills so he can pay off his debt. But so far he's not having much success.