CLEVELAND — Families are footing higher costs when their kids are born. Now imagine the bills for a premature baby. This is the latest in our on-going series Diagnosis: Debt where a local woman is having problems with University Hospitals' billing department.
Alaina McCruel's journey is filled with overcoming medical uncertainties, but it all comes with the pain of facing massive bills.
Miracles came calling for little Isaiah and his mother from Fairview Park. The first miracle was the pregnancy itself. "It was a surprise because I had cancer when I was a kid,” explained McCruel. “So, we've gone since I was 13 years old thinking this couldn't happen."
The miracle pregnancy didn't come without a cost in the form of complications. Isaiah was too small. There was not enough blood flowing to him. "It got to the point where every week it was like come back next week. Come back next week,” said McCruel.
Then, there wasn't a next week. Isaiah came into the world three months too soon weighing 1 pound, 6 ounces.
"Honestly I was scared,” said the new mom, even though she’s a trained nurse. “I've worked with preemies before but when it's your own…it's a totally different reality."
Mom and son needed so much help. "(It was) very emotional...it gets to be depressing because…the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) becomes your life," McCruel recalled.
Their second miracle came from medicine. All the UH treatments, all the care, the tubes, the machines, and the love that helped Isaiah grow during the seven months he was in the NICU all came together. "Just a great staff,” described McCruel. “And I felt like they took really good care of us there."
It was miracle, though, that came with costs. "So, you get (a bill) crazy like $90,000. And then you (call UH and say) ‘Hey! We have insurance. There's also Medicaid here. (They would say), ‘Oh, let me fix that," McCruel told us.
There was another problem that added to her costs. Isaiah had to stay in the hospital another 3-4 months after getting out of the NICU because they couldn't find a nurse to help with around-the-clock care. That’s something Medicaid requires for preemies like Isaiah. Three to four months in a hospital adds up to a lot of money.
McCruel showed us one bill for $440,000. Due, of course, upon receipt.
"What's your reaction?” we asked McCruel.
“I laughed. I was like, well, good luck with that,” she replied.
McCruel told us she didn't have much luck with the billing department even though she has Medicaid. "A month goes by and I get another bill,” said McCruel. “(UH would then say), ‘Oh, we don't have Medicaid listed. Do you have it?... Ok, we'll resubmit it.’ I've done that over 10 times,” she said.
McCruel showed us the stacks of billing info, including pages upon pages of adjustments to her bills.
McCruel is not alone, and won’t be. "We know, in fact, in America and here in Cleveland we have one crisis,” said Stacey Stewart. She’s the President & CEO of the March of Dimes. “Here in Ohio, a black woman, an African-American woman is 50% more likely to have a baby born prematurely,” she told us.
Her organization just came out with a study on premature births around the country.
Ohio gets a C- grade, and, out of the 100 largest cities in the US, Cleveland is dead last.
"Why is it that this area known for medical care is in this position?” we asked Stewart.
“Well, it probably is helping a lot of women. It probably just isn’t enough,” she replied.
This problem isn't going anywhere, anytime soon. The study showed for the fourth year in a row, there was an increase in pre-term babies with an average bill of $62,000 each in Ohio. "The greatest cost is borne by that baby and then by that family,” said Stewart. “But what we also need to understand is that society, as a whole, bears a risk for it."
At just 15 months old, Isaiah has made so much of his miracles. "(There were) a lot of moments where it didn't look like he's was going to make it,” said McCruel. “So, (now) it's...it’s overwhelming joy."
But there's a long way to go for him, his mom, and the billing. "It puts a lot of burden on families,” McCruel told us. “It's overwhelming."
University Hospitals denied us an on-camera interview but did send this statement:
“University Hospitals will investigate any concerns Ms. McCruel has regarding billing for her son’s care. We will work directly with her and her insurance company to address any potential issues. We apologize for any confusion or concern this may have caused Ms. McCruel.”