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Hilton Head COVID 19 patient still fights medical bills, debt

For Hilton Head Island’s first COVID-19 patient, recovery has been slow.

Nearly five months after being hospitalized eight days with COVID-19 on Hilton Head, Pamela Lazarus Rickett’s sense of taste is still distorted. She’s still afflicted by blood clots in her legs. And she’s still dealing with bills.

In April, when The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette first reported Lazarus Rickett’s $63,500 in medical expenses — invoices that began arriving days after she was discharged — insurance representatives assured her they would be covered at no out-of-pocket cost. But after dozens of phone calls to medical providers’ customer service lines over a period of months, several charges remained.

In August, Lazarus Rickett received a new letter. Despite assurances from the provider, a contractor providing medical care at Hilton Head Hospital, one of the bills associated with her hospital stay had been turned over to a medical debt collection firm, it said.

“Why am I having to do this work for five months for something I’ve been promised and re-promised over and over will not get to the point of collections?” Lazarus Rickett said.

For her, the experience is emblematic of the complicated medical maze COVID-19 patients may have to navigate after discharge.

After the newspapers brought the $195 deductible charge up with Hilton Head Emergency Physicians, the provider that treated her in the emergency room before she was admitted on March 20, a doctor associated with the practice said he would work to undo the collection and write off the remaining expense.

Since Lazarus Rickett presented at the ER with symptoms not typical of COVID-19, the treatment she received there wasn’t coded as coronavirus-related, said Dr. Robert Clodfelter, medical director of the emergency department at Hilton Head Hospital and a member of the physicians group that contracts with the facility to provide services.

Lazarus Rickett didn’t test positive for COVID-19 until days into her hospital stay.

“The right thing was done every step of the way” in terms of her treatment and diagnoses in the ER, Clodfelter said, but billing is handled separately from care. When similar situations are brought to his attention, he does everything he can to help a patient, he said.

“She’s not alone, I can guarantee you that,” he said.

A sign on Hospital Center Boulevard directs all patients arriving at Hilton Head Hospital to use the emergency room as seen on Monday, March 30, 2020. Drew Martin A slow recovery

Lazarus Rickett, who was told she was the facility’s first coronavirus patient, was discharged from Hilton Head Hospital on March 27. She was racked by fatigue.

Rather than return to work, Lazarus Rickett has spent the past five months as a full-time caregiver for her husband, Kenny Rickett, who was left disabled after a massive stroke and has undergone several heart surgeries, including the installation of a heart pump.

Since March, Lazarus Rickett’s husband has been in and out of the hospital at the Medical University of South Carolina. Doctors have likened the sound of his heart to a “freight train” and a “washing machine.”

“It’s not supposed to sound like that,” said Lazarus Rickett, who said she expects her husband to be back in the hospital in Charleston this summer.

Lazarus Rickett has turned to a GoFundMe campaign to support some of her husband’s ballooning medical costs.

All the while, assistance was slow to arrive after she was diagnosed with COVID-19. Federal pandemic unemployment insurance payments took months to kick in, but bills from her treatment showed up within weeks.

Pamela Lazarus Rickett, Hilton Head Hospital’s first COVID-19 patient, is pictured here with her husband Kenny Rickett. Submitted

Her insurance provider, Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina, said customers wouldn’t pay any out-of-pocket costs for in-network coronavirus treatment.

The insurer has stepped in to cover the bulk of her bills, but, as of late last week, three small charges remained due to coding issues with the various providers, Lazarus Rickett said.

She estimates she called her insurer and the billing department for the provider eight times regarding the invoice for her treatment in Hilton Head Hospital’s ER that was eventually turned over to a debt collector, according to an Aug. 11 letter reviewed by the newspapers.

One in five American consumers has overdue medical debt on their credit report, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that cited issues between medical providers and insurers as one potential source of collection actions.

On phone calls, insurance representatives explained that the bill would have to be properly coded and re-submitted, Lazarus Rickett said.

Patti Embry-Tautenhan, a spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina, said she could not address specific members’ situations due to privacy concerns. “We typically work with providers on behalf of our members when there are coding issues,” she said.

TeamHealth, the national medical company that owns the Hilton Head ER physicians group that billed Lazarus Rickett, would not comment, citing patient confidentiality, but said it was “researching this matter internally.”

Clodfelter, the Hilton Head physicians group member, stepped in after the newspapers contacted Hilton Head Hospital’s parent company, a separate firm. On Friday, he promised to address the bill, given the circumstances surrounding Lazarus Rickett’s care.

“We coded it exactly correctly,” he said, saying that it is not uncommon for a patient to present at the ER without being diagnosed with COVID-19 or displaying related symptoms, and then be admitted and test positive.

“Dealing with (insurance), dealing with a billing company is always frustrating,” he said. “I do what I can.”

The sign to Hilton Head Hospital, as seen on Friday, March 27, 2020, along Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island. Drew Martin Remaining bills finally resolved

Since a reporter contacted her insurance company and several providers with outstanding bills, all have been covered, Lazarus Rickett said on Monday.

She says dealing with billing issues after her treatment has been draining and has taken away from time spent with her husband, whose heart is failing. She continued to raise the issue partly because she hopes it will help others in similar situations.

“It should have never gotten to this point,” she said.

Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet

Lucas Smolcic Larson joined The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette as a projects reporter in 2019, after graduating from Brown University. He previously contributed to investigations as an intern at The Washington Post and the Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington D.C. Lucas hails from central Pennsylvania and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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