CBS 17 Investigates | Taxpayers foot the bill as EMS debt reaches the millions

Investigators

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A trip in an ambulance can cost thousands of dollars and as CBS 17 Investigates found – many North Carolina families can’t or don’t pay that bill.

Wake County EMS responds to nearly 300 calls a day and 24-year-old Cassandra Casbarro knows first hand the importance of that service.

She is battling several illnesses.

“They diagnosed me with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which is a rare connective tissue disorder which means everything in my body that’s made of tissue doesn’t work,” said Cassandra Casbarro.

Cassandra Casbarro (Image provided to CBS 17)

It’s one of many health problems that require her taking an ambulance to the emergency room.

Casbarro told CBS 17 her medical debt is nearing $25,000 and has put her life at risk by not using an ambulance.

“I was having symptoms of a pulmonary embolism which is a blood clot in your lungs and I refused to call 911 because I waited until somebody came and picked me up. I wasn’t going to drive myself. But I was not going to call an ambulance and pay 2 to 5 grand.”

She said many of her medical bills go unpaid and has started a GoFundMe account to help her cover those bills.

The account includes her online blog “Battle with my Body.”

Through updates, Casbarro details the trails of medical debt and health problems.

She posts photos and writes in details about her illnesses, injuries, surgeries and daily self-care.

Image provided by Cassandra Casbarro

Casbarro said a five-day stay in the hospital cost $14,000.

“It’s so hard to deal with the fact I’m getting medications, procedures and I can’t pay for it,” stated Casbarro.

Through a public records request, CBS 17 discovered Casbarro is not alone.

Many residents are not paying their EMS and medical bills.

The data from Wake County EMS revealed they billed patients more than $$77,846,531.38 for services between January 2017 and March 2019.

As of March 2019, a total of $32,637,279.85 remained unpaid.

Wake County EMS Assistant Chief Jeffrey Hammerstein said on average, more than a third of ambulance and EMS bills in Wake County go completely unpaid even with insurance.

“If we respond to you and provide service, we are still going to bill Medicare or your insurance company. Then the balance of that bill is the responsibility of that patient,” explained Hammerstein.

Here’s how the Emergency Medical Services billing process works:

If no payments have been made by 90 days, EMS will turn the account over to collections.

If a bill still goes unpaid, the balance is taken from the patient’s tax refunds or even lottery winnings.

If they have neither, then the debt is covered by the Wake County general fund which is made up of taxpayer dollars.

“Taxpayers do carry the load of what is not collected,” Hammerstein said.

The county’s general fund money set aside to go towards public schools, affordable housing, public safety, human services and more.

Click here for details on Wake County’s current general fund

Because of the stress of paying for EMS services, Wake County does have a program to lessen the cost.

For just $60 a year, you or anyone else in your home can receive emergency 911 ambulance service anywhere in Wake County.

But you have to be signed up before an emergency.

In the state of North Carolina, emergency response ambulances are run by each county.

So the prices and programs vary from county to county.

But there are various groups that can help you manage your medical debt and finances – Click here for more information

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