Never-Ending Costs: When Resolved Medical Bills Keep Popping Up

A bill one family considered paid wrongfully resurfaced, resurrecting painful memories. It’s a scenario that’s not uncommon but grievously unsettling.

Every now and then, Suzanne Rybak and her husband, Jim, receive pieces of mail addressed to their deceased son, Jameson. Typically, it’s junk mail that requires little thought, Suzanne said.

But on March 5, an envelope for Jameson came from McLeod Health.

Jim saw it first. He turned to his wife and asked, “Have you taken your blood pressure medication today?”

He knew showing her the envelope would resurface the pain and anger their family had experienced since taking Jameson to McLeod Regional Medical Center two years ago.

As KHN previously reported, Jameson was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from quitting opioids. Suzanne feared for her son’s life and took him to the emergency room near their home in Florence, South Carolina, on March 11, 2020.

There, they encountered a paucity of addiction treatment and the potential for high medical costs — two problems that plague many families affected by the opioid crisis and often lead to missed opportunities to save lives.

Jameson was not offered medications to treat opioid use disorder in the ER, nor was he given referrals to other treatment facilities, Suzanne said. The hospital wanted to admit him, but, being uninsured, Jameson feared a high bill. The hospital didn’t inform him of its financial assistance policy, Suzanne said. And he decided to leave.

Three months later, Jameson, 30, died of an overdose in his childhood bedroom.

In the following months, the Rybaks received bills from the McLeod Health system addressed to Jameson. He owed $4,928, it said. Suzanne called and wrote to hospital administrators until September 2020, when the bill was resolved under the system’s financial assistance program.

That was the last they had heard from McLeod Health until the new envelope arrived March 5 — one week before the two-year anniversary of his ER visit. That visit was what Suzanne calls “the beginning of the end for my son.”

When the Rybaks opened the envelope, they found a strikingly familiar bill for $4,928.

“I can’t even describe my anger and sadness,” Suzanne said. “It’s always present, but when we received that statement, we were just stunned.”

There’s no national data to indicate how often patients or their families receive medical bills that were previously paid or forgiven, but hospital billing experts say they frequently see it happen. Patients receive bills for claims their insurers already paid. A reminder statement arrives even after a patient submitted payment.

Unlike “surprise bills,” which often result from policy gaps when a provider is out of network, these are bills that were resolved but continue to pop up anyway. They can carry financial consequences — patients wind up paying for something they don’t truly owe or bills get passed on to debt collection agencies, triggering more phones calls and red tape. But often it’s the emotional toll that wears on patients most, spending hours on the phone with customer service each time the bill resurfaces or reliving the situations that led to the bill in the first place. For families like the Rybaks, the cost can feel never-ending.

Suzanne Rybak refused to engage with the McLeod hospital again but told KHN about the new bill.

In response to questions from KHN, McLeod Health determined the bill the Rybaks received was a mistake.

“Unfortunately our software system regenerated this statement due to a technical issue,” wrote spokesperson Jumana Swindler. “We are checking to ensure that it has not happened to any other patients and we are sorry this family was impacted by the error.”

A week after KHN’s inquiry, the Rybaks received a letter from the hospital explaining and apologizing for the error.

Many medical billing cases like this “boil down to human error,” said Michael Corbett, director of health care consulting for LBMC, a Tennessee-based firm that consults with health systems nationally on issues like billing and revenue. “Facilities don’t have a lack of tools [to avoid this]. It’s a breakdown in their processes.”

A billing agent may forget to mark the account as paid, he said. Or the hospital might contract its billing to an outside company and fail to inform them that this bill was covered under the hospital’s financial assistance program.

As hospitals and medical practices increasingly consolidate under large health systems, the chances for errors increase. Even hospitals and clinics within the same system may have different backend software, and within each hospital there can be separate programs for billing and electronic health records, Corbett explained.

Larger health systems may also have more people processing any given bill. If responsibilities are not clearly defined, multiple employees could unknowingly act on the same patient account.

The covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated potential errors, Corbett said. New medical billing employees may have received quick, virtual training and are working remotely with little interaction with team members or oversight. Some billing departments are understaffed, leading to delays in patients receiving bills or follow-up notices, he added.

To curb mistakes, Corbett said, hospitals need to invest in more comprehensive training and supervision for billing employees; enact consistent processes for anything from how patients’ financial information is collected at registration to when they’re sent bills; and, perhaps most important, track whether those processes are being followed.

For patients who find themselves in a situation like the Rybak family’s, Corbett advises calling the hospital billing department and asking to speak with a senior leader in its revenue cycle division. Unlike an account representative, this person could make decisions, Corbett said.

At the end of the conversation, ask to get the explanation in writing, he added.

“You’d anticipate and hope those notes are being recorded,” Corbett said, but that may not be the case. Or notes might get recorded in a section of hospital files that are excluded from a patient’s legal medical record, making it difficult for patients to access later.

For Suzanne Rybak, the idea of calling McLeod Health to straighten out yet another bill was too much. Instead, she added the statement to a binder of paperwork, in which she’s documented all her billing struggles with McLeod Health over the past two years.

Still, out of sight hardly means out of mind. The binder sits in her craft room, where she remembers Jameson encouraging her as she made beach bags and other items. He’d say to use “fruity colors,” Suzanne recalled — his way of describing tropical colors. Now she makes candles in that room, focusing on tropical fragrances she knows Jameson would have loved.

“I want hospitals to realize that you’re not just sending this bill to an address,” Suzanne said. “There are people who live in that house, who are going to open that mail and have feelings. … It’s a disaster to bring all that up again.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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$11M for North Carolina Work-Based Rehab Raises Concerns

As overdoses surge and opioid settlement dollars flow, funding to North Carolina rehab foreshadows national discussion about the best approaches to treatment.

DURHAM, N.C. — An addiction treatment facility, highly regarded by North Carolina lawmakers, sits in a residential neighborhood here and operates like a village in itself. Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, better known as TROSA, hosts roughly 400 people a day on a campus with rows of housing units, cafeterias, a full gym, and a barbershop.

The program, which began in 1994, is uniquely designed: Treatment, housing, and meals are free to participants. And TROSA doesn’t bill insurance. Instead, residents work for about two years in TROSA’s many businesses, including a moving company, thrift store, and lawn care service. Program leaders say the work helps residents overcome addiction and train for future jobs. Of those who graduate, 96% of individuals remain sober and 91% are employed a year later, the program’s latest report claims.

Impressed with such statistics, state lawmakers recently allotted $11 million for TROSA to expand its model to Winston-Salem. It’s the largest amount in the state budget targeted to a single treatment provider and comes on the heels of $6 million North Carolina previously provided for its expansion, as well as $3.2 million TROSA has received in state and federal funds annually for several years.

This latest influx of taxpayer dollars — coming at a time when overdose deaths are surging and each dollar spent on treatment is crucial — is drawing criticism. Advocates, researchers, and some former employees and participants of TROSA say the program takes advantage of participants by making them work without pay and puts their lives at risk by restricting the use of certain medications for opioid use disorder. Although those who graduate may do well, only 25% of participants complete the program — a figure TROSA leaders confirmed.

“If I had known about this funding, I would have been the first person on the mic to [tell lawmakers], ‘I don’t think you all should do this,’” said K.C. Freeman, who interned at TROSA in 2018 and later spent two months on staff in the medical department. “You can’t look at the small number of people who had success and say this works. It’s not the majority.”

The dispute over TROSA’s funding comes amid national conversations about how to allocate billions of dollars available after landmark opioid settlements with drug companies. Two flashpoints in the North Carolina debate may provide a window into heated conversations to come. First: Are work-based rehabs legal or ethical? And second: Should every facility that receives public funding allow participants to use all medications for opioid use disorder?

Work as Treatment

Work-based rehabs are widespread across the country. The investigative news outlet Reveal identified at least 300 such facilities, including some that place participants in dangerous jobs at oil refineries or dairy farms with no training and exploit workers to bolster profits.

Many of these programs use a portion of their revenue to sustain the rehab and offer residents free housing or meals. That can make them attractive to state legislators, said Noah Zatz, a UCLA law professor who specializes in employment and labor law.

“Because essentially they’re running businesses off of people’s uncompensated labor, there is a built-in funding mechanism,” he said. “If the state doesn’t have to pay full freight to run a program … that might be a reason to like it.”

TROSA’s annual reports indicate more than half of its multimillion-dollar budget is funded through its businesses at which residents work, as well as goods and services that are donated to the program. About 30% of its funding comes from government grants and contracts.

Although TROSA and its leaders report no significant campaign donations, they spend upward of $75,000 a year on lobbying. In presentations, they often share a 2017 study — conducted by an independent research institute at TROSA’s request — which found TROSA saves the state nearly $7.5 million annually in criminal justice and emergency care costs.

The program’s self-financing aspect is part of its appeal for North Carolina Sen. Joyce Krawiec, a Republican who represents part of Forsyth County, where TROSA is building its new site.

“The good thing about TROSA: They raised most of their own funds,” she said in a phone interview.

It’s reasonable that residents don’t get paid for their work, she added, since they’re already receiving free treatment and housing. Other rehabs can be prohibitively expensive for many families, so TROSA provides a much-needed option.

But being a bargain doesn’t necessarily make it legal, Zatz and other labor experts said. A previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling suggests nonprofits that run businesses without paying employees could violate the Fair Labor Standards Act.

But TROSA administrators say they are not an employer; they are a therapeutic community. Clear policies guard against the exploitation of anyone, said Keith Artin, president and CEO. The jobs provide residents with structure and an opportunity to change their behaviors.

“The work-based element is essential to recovery,” Artin said. “We’re teaching people how to live.”

Toward the end of residents’ two-year stays, TROSA assists them in job-hunting and allows them to live on campus for several months while they work at a newfound job and build savings.

Diverging Work Experiences

TROSA’s model has widespread support among lawmakers and families affected by addiction. Benjamin Weston said it was “a blessing.”

Weston said he started using cocaine as a teenager and struggled with addiction for years. At 22, he entered TROSA. He said he was grateful for two years of free treatment.

After brief assignments in TROSA’s thrift store and moving company, Weston transitioned to the development office, where he solicited donations from local businesses. “It was meaningful work that also taught me a lot of good job skills,” he said.

Since graduating in 2016, Weston has worked in development for Hope Connection International, a nonprofit his mother started to support survivors of abuse and addiction.

Other graduates interviewed for this article talked about using the moving skills or commercial driving licenses they gained to obtain full-time jobs. Some said they’re buying houses and starting families — successes they credit to their experience in the program.

But not every resident finds the work model therapeutic. Several described working 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week, in physically demanding moving or lawn care businesses. Several said there was little time for therapy and, with only a handful of counselors for hundreds of residents, wait times for a session could span weeks.

Freeman, the former TROSA employee who has a master’s in social work, said he thought residents rarely had an opportunity to process the trauma that made them use drugs in the first place. Although Freeman did not counsel clients — his role at TROSA focused on ordering and stocking medications — he said he noticed many graduates returned repeatedly to the program, struggling to stay away from substances once they left campus.

Richard Osborne first heard of TROSA while incarcerated on drug and theft-related charges. Like 38% of TROSA residents, he chose to attend the program as a condition of his probation.

One day in 2017, Osborne and other residents working with the moving company were unloading large boards of plywood from a trailer, when a board fell and smashed him against the trailer, he said. His vision became blurry and he worried about having a concussion, he said.

As he remembers it, no one suggested medical care. “The next day, they told me I had to get back to work,” he claimed.

That’s when Osborne said he decided to leave.

Today, Osborne, 31, said he has not used drugs in about four years, holds a steady job, and has a loving family. But it’s no thanks to TROSA, he said.

“They’re taking advantage of people at their low points in life,” he said. The moving company brings in $4 million a year, yet residents who work for it are not even allowed to keep tips, he added.

TROSA leaders confirmed the tips policy but said they could not comment on an individual residents’ experience. In general, CEO Artin wrote in an email, “when a resident is injured we ensure that they receive immediate medical attention and would never knowingly put a resident at risk.”

As a nonprofit, TROSA funnels revenue from its businesses back into the treatment program, he added.

The program’s 2020 tax documents show its top five employees combined earned over $750,000 in salary and benefits.

Medication Hesitancy

TROSA provides psychiatric care through a contract with Duke Health and offers group or individual counseling to residents who request it. The program employs four full-time counselors and partners with local providers who donate physical therapy, dental care, and other medical services.

But TROSA does not provide access to some of the most effective treatments for opioid use disorder: methadone and buprenorphine. Both medications activate opioid receptors in the brain and reduce opioid withdrawal and cravings. It’s been well documented that these medications greatly reduce the risk of opioid overdose death, and the FDA-approved drugs are considered the “gold standard” for treatment.

Right now, TROSA leaders say the only medication for opioid use disorder the program offers is naltrexone, an injectable medication that works differently than the other two because it requires patients to fully detox to be effective. Because of this, some experts are hesitant to use it, saying it puts people at higher risk of overdose death.

About one-third of TROSA participants report opioids are their primary drug of choice.

TROSA leaders said they’ve discussed adding the other addiction treatment medications but face logistical barriers. All medications at TROSA are self-administered, and leaders worry about diversion of oral methadone and buprenorphine, which are classified as controlled substances. They say they’d consider injectable buprenorphine, but it’s costly for their mostly uninsured participants.

“People choose to come here because it is a behavior modification program,” said Lisa Finlay, lead clinical counselor at TROSA. “They know that we don’t offer buprenorphine or those medications. We have people who have tried those medications in the past and believe that they actually led them back to using.”

Evidence suggests that people using medications for opioid use disorder have the best outcomes when they have access to other recovery support services, such as housing, employment, counseling, and a community. But while clinicians across the country have embraced these medications, leaders of residential treatment programs founded in the more traditional 12-step, abstinence-based recovery model have pushed back.

Some old-school recovery leaders claim the use of medications is simply replacing one drug with another, which has created stigma around this form of treatment.

A 2020 study found that about 40% of residential programs surveyed in the U.S. didn’t offer opioid use disorder medications and 20% actively discouraged people from using them. In North Carolina, there are 62 licensed long-term residential treatment facilities, according to the SAMHSA treatment locator, and fewer than half accept patients who take these medications. Only 12 facilities are licensed to prescribe buprenorphine.

This has resulted in tough conversations with patients for Kate Roberts, a clinical social worker on a UNC Health team that treats people with severe IV drug-related infections. Once patients are stabilized, many start buprenorphine, she said. Some say they want to go to a residential program for structure, job training, and to learn coping skills. Roberts recalled one patient saying to her: “I need to go to residential treatment and I need this medication because I fear I’ll die.”

“That’s really heartbreaking to hear a patient clearly articulate what it is that they need … which is in line with the [research] literature,” she said. “And that you know there are very few places in the state that offer that.”

Doctors and public health experts nationwide are pushing for lawmakers to fund rehab facilities that allow these medications, saying they’re the best way to combat the opioid crisis. Some medical and legal experts have said it’s in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act to deny recovery services such as housing to people using medications for opioid use disorder. Health experts say that funding abstinence-based addiction programs could also inadvertently cause more overdoses if people leave the program and return to using drugs with a much lower tolerance, especially as fentanyl is rampant in the street drug supply.

These conversations will become only more important as opioid settlement funds arrive, said Bradley Stein, director of the national Rand Opioid Policy Center.

“The goal isn’t just to get people into treatment; it’s to get people doing better,” he said. “You want to make sure that you’re using the money effectively.”

The conversations have begun in North Carolina. When Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Durham) tweeted his support for TROSA late last year, clinicians reached out to him explaining their concerns about the program not allowing participants to use methadone or buprenorphine.

Although Meyer still believes it’s an effective program, he said, “I also have concerns from what I learned about TROSA’s approach to treating opioid addiction in particular. I’d like to see TROSA consider what their current practices are.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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This story can be republished for free (details).