Hiding Hospital Charity from Those who Need it the Most

by Published on

(From time to time I stray from border topics. This is one of those times…)

A new report illustrates what people have been saying for years in Galveston and East Texas: if you’ve got no health insurance and you are sick don’t count on hospital charity programs to help you.

A subcommittee of the Cancer Coalition of Galveston County found that despite a law requiring medical providers to provide written policies on their charity and reduced-fee care, they neglect to do so and often their employees tell patients that no “charity care” is available. The surveyors looked at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Galveston County’s 4 C’s Clinics and the Mainland Medical Center.

They surveyors in the study repeatedly visited the hospitals and clinics from November 2007 to January 2008 to inquire whether they offered free or reduced care programs. Each time they were told by employees that there was no charity care.

In a September article I outlined how someone who is critically ill and uninsured becomes a hot potato passed from medical facility to medical facility.

On October 2007, a 27-year-old man showed up at the Port Arthur clinic. The young man—because of federal health privacy laws, we’ll call him Sam—had been urinating blood. Sam was diagnosed with a kidney tumor at the local Christus St. Mary’s Hospital ER. Normally, Sam’s kidney would have been removed, and he likely would have survived. Because he didn’t have health insurance, Christus St. Mary’s referred him to UTMB. From there, his case became a classic illustration of how uninsured patients with serious and costly illnesses are bounced from ER to ER—triaged, as required by federal law, then sent on their way with life-threatening conditions.

Doctors at UTMB did some tests and sent Sam back to Port Arthur. He didn’t know where to turn. Several months passed. Sam’s tumor grew to the size of a grapefruit. Finally, at another local ER, he was told about the county’s indigent program. By the time he got to the Port Arthur clinic, the tumor took up half his abdomen.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.