After Medical Bills Broke the Bank, This Family Headed to Mexico for Care

The Fierro family of Yuma, Arizona, had a string of bad medical luck that started in December 2020.

That’s when Jesús Fierro Sr. was admitted to the hospital with a serious covid-19 infection. He spent 18 days at Yuma Regional Medical Center, where he lost 60 pounds. He came home weak and dependent on an oxygen tank.

Then, in June 2021, his wife, Claudia, fainted while waiting for a table at the local Olive Garden. She felt dizzy one minute and was in an ambulance on her way to the same medical center the next. She was told her magnesium levels were low and was sent home within 24 hours.

The family has health insurance through Jesús Sr.’s job. But it didn’t protect the Fierros from owing thousands of dollars. So, when their son Jesús Fierro Jr. dislocated his shoulder, the Fierros — who hadn’t yet paid the bills for their own care — opted out of U.S. health care and headed south to the U.S.-Mexico border.

And no other bills came for at least one member of the family.

The Patients: Jesús Fierro Sr., 48; Claudia Fierro, 51; and Jesús Fierro Jr., 17. The family has Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas health insurance through Jesús Sr.’s employment with NOV Inc., formerly National Oilwell Varco, a multinational oil company.

Medical Services: For Jesús Sr., 18 days of inpatient care for a severe covid infection. For Claudia, less than 24 hours of emergency care after fainting. For Jesús Jr., a walk-in appointment for a dislocated shoulder.

Total Bills: Jesús Sr. was charged $3,894.86. The total bill was $107,905.80 for covid treatment. Claudia was charged $3,252.74, including $202.36 for treatment from an out-of-network physician. The total bill was $13,429.50 for less than a day of treatment. Jesús Jr. was charged about $5 (70 pesos) for an outpatient visit that the family paid in cash.

Service Providers: Yuma Regional Medical Center, a 406-bed, nonprofit hospital in Yuma, Arizona. It’s in the Fierros’ insurance network. And a private doctor’s office in Mexicali, Mexico, which is not.

The Fierros have been strapped by unusually high medical bills from the Yuma Regional Medical Center.(Lisa Hornak for KHN)

What Gives: The Fierros were trapped in a situation that more and more Americans find themselves in: They are what some experts term “functionally uninsured.” They have insurance — in this case, through Jesús Sr.’s job,

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Hit with $7,146 for two hospital bills, a family sought health care in Mexico : Shots

Claudia and Jesús Fierro of Yuma, Ariz., review their medical bills. They pay $1,000 a month for health insurance yet still owed more than $7,000 after two episodes of care at the local hospital.

Lisa Hornak for Kaiser Health News


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Lisa Hornak for Kaiser Health News


Claudia and Jesús Fierro of Yuma, Ariz., review their medical bills. They pay $1,000 a month for health insurance yet still owed more than $7,000 after two episodes of care at the local hospital.

Lisa Hornak for Kaiser Health News

The Fierro family of Yuma, Ariz., had a string of bad medical luck that started in December 2020.

That’s when Jesús Fierro Sr. was admitted to the hospital with a serious case of COVID-19. He spent 18 days at Yuma Regional Medical Center, where he lost 60 pounds. He came home weak and dependent on an oxygen tank.

Then, in June 2021, his wife, Claudia Fierro, fainted while waiting for a table at the local Olive Garden restaurant. She felt dizzy one minute and was in an ambulance on her way to the same medical center the next. She was told her magnesium levels were low and was sent home within 24 hours.

The family has health insurance through Jesús Sr.’s job, but it didn’t protect the Fierros from owing thousands of dollars. So when their son Jesús Fierro Jr. dislocated his shoulder, the Fierros — who hadn’t yet paid the bills for their own care — opted out of U.S. health care and headed south to the U.S.-Mexico border.

And no other bills came for at least one member of the family.

The patients: Jesús Fierro Sr., 48; Claudia Fierro, 51; and Jesús Fierro Jr., 17. The family has Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas health insurance through Jesús Sr.’s employment with NOV, formerly National Oilwell Varco, an American multinational oil company based in Houston.

Medical services: For Jesús Sr., 18 days of inpatient care for a severe case of COVID-19. For Claudia, fewer than 24 hours of emergency care after fainting. For Jesús Jr., a walk-in appointment for a dislocated shoulder.

Total bills: Jesús Sr. was charged $3,894.86. The total bill was $107,905.80 for COVID-19 treatment. Claudia was charged $3,252.74, including $202.36 for treatment from an out-of-network physician. The total bill was $13,429.50 for less than one day of treatment. Jesús Jr. was charged $5 (70 pesos)

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Never-ending costs: When resolved medical bills keep popping up : Shots

Suzanne and Jim Rybak, inside the craft room where their son, Jameson, would encourage Suzanne to make colorful beach bags, received a $4,928 medical bill months after it was supposedly resolved.

By Gavin McIntyre/Kaiser Health News


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By Gavin McIntyre/Kaiser Health News


Suzanne and Jim Rybak, inside the craft room where their son, Jameson, would encourage Suzanne to make colorful beach bags, received a $4,928 medical bill months after it was supposedly resolved.

By Gavin McIntyre/Kaiser Health News

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 in Florence, S.C., 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 McLeod’s emergency room 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.

Months of red tape

In the following months, the Rybaks received bills from McLeod Health addressed to Jameson. He owed $4,928, the bills said. Suzanne called and wrote to hospital administrators until September 2020, when the bill was resolved under the health 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 Jameson’s ER visit. That visit was what Suzanne calls “the beginning of the end for my son.”

When the Rybaks opened the envelope,

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Worried About Healthcare Bills? 3 Accounts Worth Saving In

It’s no secret that healthcare can be expensive. From insurance premiums to copays, the cost of caring for ourselves can be monumental. So it’s not surprising that 22% of respondents in a recent survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education said they’re worried about covering their medical costs. If you have similar concerns, here are three accounts to consider saving in for healthcare.

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1. A traditional savings account

It’s a good idea to have money in a savings account for emergencies. But you may also want to open a separate savings account for medical bills.

While healthcare costs can sometimes be an emergency, they should also be budgeted and saved for accordingly. And socking money away in the bank will give you the freedom to easily take withdrawals for medical bills as needed.

How much should you save for healthcare? A good bet is to go through your medical bills from the previous year and put in enough money to cover an equivalent set of bills. Also, if your health insurance plan charges a deductible — the amount of money you need to pay out of pocket before your insurer pays for your services — then aim to save at least that much money. In fact, socking away your deductible is a good goal for your emergency medical expense fund.

2. A flexible spending account

With a flexible spending account, or FSA, you allocate pre-tax dollars for healthcare bills. If you contribute $1,500 to an FSA, that’s $1,500 of income you won’t pay taxes on. But an FSA also requires you to accurately estimate your healthcare expenses for the year. If you allocate too much money to your FSA and don’t use it up within your plan year, you risk forfeiting the balance.

For the current year, FSAs max out at $2,750, and as of this writing, we don’t know what the maximum allowable contribution will be for 2022. You

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Surprise medical bills are the target of a new law. Here’s how it works : Shots

The No Surprises Act is intended to stop surprise medical bills. It could also slow the growth of health insurance premiums.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP


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J. Scott Applewhite/AP


The No Surprises Act is intended to stop surprise medical bills. It could also slow the growth of health insurance premiums.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Patients are months away from not having to worry about most surprise medical bills — those extra costs that can amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars when people are unknowingly treated by an out-of-network doctor or hospital.

The No Surprises Act — which takes effect Jan. 1 — generally forbids insurers from dropping such bills on patients and, instead, requires health care providers and insurers to work out a deal between themselves.

Some observers have speculated that the law will have the unintended consequence of shifting costs and leading to higher insurance premiums.

Many policy experts told KHN that, in fact, the opposite may happen: It may slightly slow premium growth.

The reason, said Katie Keith, a research faculty member at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, is that a new rule released Sept. 30 by the Biden administration appears to “put a thumb on the scale” to discourage settlements at amounts higher than most insurers generally pay for in-network care.

That rule, which provides more details on the way such out of network disputes will be settled under the No Surprises Act, drew immediate opposition from hospital and physician groups. The American Medical Association called it “an undeserved gift to the insurance industry,” while the American College of Radiology said it “does not reflect real-world payment rates” and warned that relying on it so heavily “will cause large imaging cuts and reduce patient access to care.”

Such tough talk echoes comments made while Congress was hammering out the law.

Here’s how the law will work and how it might affect insurance premiums and the health care industry.

Sending unsettled bills to arbitration

The No Surprises Act takes aim at a common practice: large, unexpected “balance bills” being sent to insured patients for services such as emergency treatment at out-of-network hospitals or via air ambulance companies. Some patients get bills even after using in-network facilities because they receive care from a doctor there who has not signed on with an insurer’s network.

Patients were caught in the middle and liable for

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