Even with insurance, Matthew Fentress faced a medical bill of more than $10,000 after a heart operation. A cook at a senior living community in Kentucky, he figured he could never pay what he owed — until a stranger who lives 2,000 miles away stepped in to help.
"The system still failed me," said Fentress, 31. "It was humanity that stepped up."
Karen Fritz, a retired college professor in Las Vegas, saw part of his story on "CBS This Morning," which partners with KHN and NPR on the crowdsourced Bill of the Month investigation. Fritz found the story online, and then she called the hospital to donate $5,000 toward Fentress' bill.
"I've been a young person in college with medical bills. I just really felt convicted to help him out, to help him get beyond his financial struggles. I had no hesitation; I felt led by the Holy Spirit to do that," said Fritz, 64, who taught business and marketing at various schools. "When you help other people, it gives you joy."
Fentress was just 25 when doctors diagnosed him with viral cardiomyopathy, a heart disease that developed after a bout of the flu. In his six years of grappling with that chronic condition, which could lead to heart failure, he had already been sued by his hospital after missing a payment and declared bankruptcy.
Financial fears reignited this year when his cardiologist suggested he undergo an ablation procedure to restore a normal heart rhythm. He said hospital officials at Baptist Health Louisville assured him he wouldn't be on the hook for more than $7,000, a huge stretch on his $30,000 annual salary.
Though the procedure went well, the bill filled him with dread. His portion totaled more than $10,000 for the ablation and related visits in 2019 and 2020. After an adjustment, a spokesperson for his insurer, United Healthcare, said he owed nearly $7,900. That was the same as the annual out-of-pocket maximum for in-network care under his plan, which also included a $1,500 annual deductible. Like millions of other Americans, Fentress is considered underinsured.
Fentress said he learned about Fritz's donation when he got a call from a hospital representative. He submitted a recent pay stub to the hospital, and its financial aid program covered the rest.
Hospital officials said Fentress at one point had been under the incorrect impression that he'd have to pay big monthly payments and couldn't apply for financial assistance because he'd gotten it before.
"Baptist Health consistently has encouraged Mr. Fentress to apply for financial assistance to provide the information we need to determine a qualifying amount," Charles Colvin, Baptist Health's vice president for revenue strategy, said in a statement. "We are pleased to have received the additional information needed to provide that financial assistance."
Fentress said he's incredibly grateful to Fritz. He plans to stay in touch with her, and he's sending her a T-shirt he designed with a picture of a heart and the words "Be nice."
"This is the first time ever since I was 25 that I haven't had medical debt. It's a wonderful feeling. It gives me a lot of peace of mind," Fentress said. "But I feel guilty that a lot of other people are still suffering."
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This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.