Hospital ordeal damages couple’s credit and trust

Sharon Young looks over documents from the lawsuit that Carolinas HealthCare filed to collect on hospital bills that she says she could not afford to pay.
Sharon Young looks over documents from the lawsuit that Carolinas HealthCare filed to collect on hospital bills that she says she could not afford to pay. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

When a torrent of blood began pouring from Sharon Young’s nose, her husband rushed her to the hospital.

Staff at CMC-Pineville kept her for three days before transferring her to Carolinas Medical Center for surgery. There, doctors put a stent in a vein to stop the bleeding.

Just 12 hours after that September 2011 operation, she said, a doctor discharged her from the hospital. “We’ve done everything we can for you,” Young recalls him saying.

Young thinks the procedure may have saved her life. But she does not recall hospital staff doing tests to determine whether she was fit enough to be discharged.

At her home in south Charlotte, she felt so weak she couldn’t stand up in the shower. After two days, her husband took her back to the hospital, where she said doctors discovered she was anemic from all the blood she had lost. They gave her three units of blood, and she soon felt better.

The good feelings ended when she got the bill. The total cost of those hospital stays – and for a hysterectomy earlier that year – topped $100,000. It was a staggering sum for a family of three with an annual income of less than $60,000. Making matters far worse, Young’s job as a grocery store cashier provided almost no health benefits.

Young recalls filling out paperwork to apply for financial assistance during her final hospital stay. She spoke with a hospital official who she said assured her she would qualify for substantial discounts. But none came.

She and her husband asked for itemized bills. Those didn't come either.

“The only people I heard from after that were the collection agencies,” Young said.

When one collection agent called, she told him she could send $100 a month. The representative told her that was “unacceptable” and that she needed to pay at least $300 a month. She and her husband couldn’t afford that.

Soon afterward, a sheriff’s deputy arrived at the Youngs’ home. The hospital system was suing them. Under a provision called the “doctrine of necessaries,” husbands and wives in North Carolina can be held liable for the debts of their spouses.

Eventually, Young sat down for arbitration with hospital representatives. They agreed to reduce her total bill to about $45,000. She agreed to pay a minimum of $50 a month for the rest of her life.

“You would never know they were not a for-profit company,” Young said. “Just the way they aggressively come after … the money.”

Carolinas HealthCare declined to comment on individual cases.

Young and her husband once had good credit, but they say the episode with the hospital system destroyed it.

Her husband soon found he could no longer buy truck tires on credit. And when the couple attempted to refinance the three-bedroom house they own near Pineville, bank officials said no. They had too much medical debt.

Young's ordinarily quiet voice gets a bit louder as she speaks of the moral of her ordeal: “Don’t get sick in Charlotte – or in America – if you can’t afford it.”

Alexander: 704-358-5060