Lauren Bard recently received a hospital bill that said, “AMOUNT DUE: $898,984.57.” Bard, who is an ER nurse, gave birth to her daughter prematurely last fall. She expected some out of pocket expenses but also assumed her employer, Dignity Health, would cover most of the cost.
Bard, 30, never expected her employer to stick her with the bill in its entirety, especially after her daughter’s premature birth and her own pregnancy-related difficulties. After Bard gave birth to Sadie at just 26 weeks on Sept. 21, 2018, at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center in Southern California, her daughter weighed less than a pound and a half and was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit. Three days later, Bard called Anthem Blue Cross, which provides her health plan, to begin coverage. Anthem and UC Irvine’s billing department told her that everything was in order.
Dignity, however, requires staff to enroll newborns within 31 days on its website, or they won’t be eligible for coverage, which Bard was unaware of. For the first nine days after giving birth, Bard was in a hospital bed and then returned to the emergency room to be treated for an infection. She also spent her days in the NICU where Sadie was fighting for her life.
Eight days after the 31-day deadline, UC Irvine’s billing department told Bard that there was a problem with Sadie’s coverage. Anthem said it was unable to process the claims for the baby, who remained in the NICU. Bard, an emergency room nurse at St. Bernardine Medical Center in San Bernardino, called Dignity’s benefits department and was informed that Sadie hadn’t been enrolled in its health plan. She was also told that it was too late and nothing could be done.
Dignity, the fifth-largest health system in the country, services in 21 states. In 2018, they reported $6.6 billion in net assets and paid its CEO $11.9 million, according to tax filings. In addition, more than two dozen Dignity executives earned more than $1 million in compensation, records show. They are also a religious organization that says its mission is to further “the healing ministry of Jesus.”
Despite arguing that it was an innocent mistake, Bard’s pleas were ignored. The benefits department claimed she was told about the 31-day rule when she was hired six years ago. “IRS regulations and plan provisions preclude us from making an enrollment exception,” Dignity wrote in its Nov. 30, 2018, response to her first appeal.
Bard’s second written appeal was also declined, saying the deadline was included in a packet sent nine days before Sadie’s birth. At that time, Bard was already in the hospital due to complications. Dignity’s letter said it “cannot make an exception to plan provisions.”
However, an official with the federal Labor Department, which oversees self-funded health benefits, told ProPublica concessions can be made as long as they are applied equally to participants. In addition, federal law allows plans to treat people with “adverse health factors” more favorably, the official said.
The debt and her employer’s dismissal only added to Bard’s postpartum depression. She feared losing her home in Norco. On Oct. 7, she decided to post a photo of the $898,000 bill on Facebook. “When Dignity Health (the company I work for) screws you out of your daughter’s insurance…” she wrote.
Lo and behold, the senior vice president of operations for Dignity Southern California, apologized to Bard and Dignity added Sadie to the plan, retroactive to her birth date so the bills could be covered. In a letter sent to Bard, a representative for Dignity wrote, “We based this new decision on certain extenuating and compelling circumstances, which, in all likelihood prohibited you from enrolling your newborn daughter within the Plan’s required 31-day enrollment period.”
Bard is not entirely convinced and believes that public shaming played a part in the organization changing its mind. Now that Sadie is one, it is not unironically that they call her their “million-dollar baby.”