The catastrophe struck Wanda Wickizer on Christmas Day 2013. A generally healthy, energetic 51-year-old, she suddenly found herself vomiting all day, racked with debilitating headaches. When her alarmed teenage son called an ambulance, the paramedics thought that she had food poisoning and didn't take her to the emergency room. Later, when she became confused and groggy at 3 a.m., her boyfriend raced her to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in coastal Virginia, where a scan showed she was suffering from a subarachnoid hemorrhage. A vessel had burst, and blood was leaking into the narrow space between the skull and the brain.
During a subarachnoid hemorrhage, if the pressure in the head isn't relieved, blood accumulates in that narrow space and can push the brain down toward the neck. Vital nerves that control breathing and vision are compressed. Death is imminent. Wickizer was whisked by helicopter ambulance to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, 160 miles away, for an emergency procedure to halt the bleeding.
After spending days in a semi-comatose state, Wickizer slowly recovered and left the hospital three weeks after the hemorrhage, grateful to be alive. But soon after she returned home to her two teenage children, she found herself confronted with a different kind of catastrophe. Wickizer had had health insurance for most of her adult life: Her husband, who died in 2006, worked for the city of Norfolk, which insured their family while he was alive and for three years beyond. After his death, Wickizer worked in a series of low-wage jobs, but none provided health insurance. A minor pre-existing condition — she was taking Lexapro, a common medicine for depression — meant that her only insurance option was to be funneled into the "high-risk pool" (a type of costly insurance option that was essentially rendered obsolete by the Affordable Care Act and now figures in some of the G.O.P. plans to replace it). She would need to pay more than $800 per month for a policy with a $5,000 deductible, and her medical procedures would then be reimbursed at 80 percent. She felt she couldn't afford that. In 2011, she decided to temporarily stop working to tend to her children, which qualified them for Medicaid; with trepidation, she left herself uninsured.
And so in early 2014, without an insurer or employer or government agency to run interference between her and the hospital, she began receiving bills: $16,000 from Sentara Norfolk (not including the scan or the E.R. doctor), $50,000 for the air ambulance. By the end of January, there was also one for $24,000 from the University of Virginia Physicians' Group: charges for some of the doctors at the medical center. "I thought, O.K., that's not so bad," Wickizer recalls. A month later, a bill for $54,000 arrived from the same physicians' group, which included further charges and late fees. Then a separate bill came just for the hospital's charges, containing a demand for $356,884.42 but little in the way of comprehensible explanation.