Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

TOP STORY >> Gas shut off as hospital bills pile up

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor-in-chief

A couple in Beebe have been without heat for several months after the natural-gas company took out their meter because they were not paying their bills.

The couple disputes that, but after we intervened in their behalf, their gas was turned back on Tuesday.

We’ll call them Mary and Joe, who’ve had major surgery and are facing mounting debts, mostly because of their operations.

They say they’ve been making payments to Centerpoint Energy, but the utility company took their meter out because it wasn’t being used ever since the gas got cut off back in March.

Centerpoint demanded $100 to return the meter and restart service. But with $20,000 in medical bills and needing medication that costs hundreds of dollars a month, Mary and Joe didn’t have the money to restart the gas.

So they relied on their wood stove and three electric heaters, but they couldn’t really warm the house much the last few weeks.

As temperatures dropped into the 20s, “it got down to 51 degrees in the house,” said Mary, who earlier this year had a baseball-sized tumor removed near her heart.

“Being on blood thinner,” she said, “and putting on three shirts, three pairs of pants, two socks and three blankets, I was still cold at night.”

She takes heart medication and three other drugs, and her husband, who had much of his colon removed, is also on three medications. A drug store gives them credit because otherwise they couldn’t afford the drugs.

It didn’t seem right that a couple trying to pay off $20,000 in medical bills and stay current with their mortgage is forced to go without heat, so we called Centerpoint in Little Rock to see if somebody there would show a little compassion.

No one answered in Little Rock, so our call was forwarded to Houston, where Centerpoint is based. No one picked up the phone there either, so we called the Public Service Commission on Monday and talked to director John Bethel, who seemed genuinely concerned that a couple in poor health would go without heat just as winter was approaching.

We told Bethel that Joe and Mary fell on hard times trying to pay the hospital where they had surgery and the doctors who performed the procedures.

He said medical waivers are available for people who can’t pay their utility bills. Joe said he told Centerpoint that he and his wife both had surgery, but that didn’t get them much sympathy.

Bethel promised to contact a public-relations person at Centerpoint in Houston. Within minutes, Alisha Dixon, a spokesperson for the utility, was on the phone.

She promised to get in touch with a troubleshooter in Little Rock. He called Joe and told him $50 would get his heat turned on and the company would bill him the other $50. A relative paid $50 in behalf of the couple, and their heat is back on.

Joe and Mary could have declared bankruptcy a long time ago. But they’re paying their bills, a little bit at a time. What they’ve found out is that even if you have health insurance, you’ll still have huge bills to take care of.

The problem was Joe’s policy paid only 20 percent of his medical expenses, so he had a $17,000 bill he had to pay off.

White County Hospital, where both had their operations, has been more than patient with them: They’re paying just a small portion of their bill every month, and it will be decades for them to pay it all off.

But they don’t want to declare bankruptcy. Even though they have an $1,800 a month mortgage, their house isn’t worth what they paid for it four years ago.

“We have 27 to 30 bills a month,” Mary said. “It’s almost impossible to take care of them all.”

She’s been worried they’d both get sick and be back in the hospital. But she was happy when her husband called her at work to tell her the heat was back on.

“I’ll get to go home to a warm house tonight,” Mary said.