Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lutheran General: Pay first, and we'll put a Band-Aid on it

Lutheran General Hospital, Park RidgeI save Stroger Hospital's painkillers for the very worst times, eking them out with handfuls of ibuprofen, but by January they're all gone. I hear nothing from the specialty clinic. I rarely reach any live people there, and when I do they can't tell me anything.

Meanwhile, somebody suggests Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. They have a charity program, we're told. We call. The lady there says we can't find out whether we qualify ahead of time. "Come in and get treated and then apply. You won't have any trouble," she says.

We owe so much money we'll never dig out — we don't even have enough income to declare bankruptcy — and I'm afraid of adding on medical bills. (And this is before I heard that Advocate Health Care, the Lutheran General's parent company, was the subject of a class-action lawsuit for overcharging uninsured patients.)

Yet the pain remains devastating. I can't sleep. I can't eat. I can't think. I can't do the bits of work I've managed to line up, and I can't look for work. Between the antibiotics and staying curled around a heating pad to try for pain relief, I break out in a livid rash. On top of that, I come down with a fierce respiratory virus, likely contracted during the long bout of waiting around in the crowd at Stroger. I have a hacking cough and can scarcely breathe. I'm feeble and wretched. I know I need help, and I can't face another 11 hours in Stroger's ER purgatory. Plus it's been snowing for days and the roads are treacherous.

So we go to Lutheran General, which isn't nearby but is a lot closer than Stroger. Just getting dressed and out to the car is an ordeal. By the time we get to the ER, I can't stand up and have to be wheeled in. The waiting room is clean, comfortable and all but empty, and I'm fairly quickly taken in back to see doctors. But not, of course, before the financial interview.

When the lady from the charity office comes around, she not only wants all the grim details of our inadequate finances, she wants $500 upfront. "A deposit."

As it happens, a long-awaited check has just arrived and we have it. My spouse is prepared to turn it over. I'm in sad shape, but not so out of it that I can't remember, "If we pay that, we won't be able to pay the electric bill.

"What happens if we don't have the money?" I ask. She settles for $300.

Then she goes on to tell us about the additional proofs of our poverty they'll need, and how only postal mail and no phone calls, faxes or e-mail are permitted in communicating about these matters. The amount of charity we may or may not qualify for is unknown.

Then I get to see a doctor. I've handed over what paperwork I have from my Stroger ER visit, and recounted what they found there, but of course Lutheran General's docs do all the same costly tests over again. With the same results. This lasts about the same length of time as at Stroger, including the requisite time lying on the gurney in the hallway. Just like Stroger, they won't give me anything for pain till they're done testing.

The ER doctor tells me that she's going to admit me "for pain management." She'll send a specialist around, too.

The specialist, when she comes around the next day, tells me bluntly that although I need treatment, there's nothing she can do for me. The facilities she uses aren't owned by the hospital. They're private, and they don't take people without health insurance. Furthermore, she says, the Lutheran General doctors aren't part of the Advocate "charity" program — they're independent operators and will charge me separately.

So they send me home again, with a few nostrums and the promise of bills I can't pay.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. That really sucks. For your sake, and for the millions of uninsured & underinsured (I fall into that category), I sure as heck hope they pass health care reform this year!


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