Mad Dogs and Medical Bills

Ann Neumann in The Baffler:

ON OCTOBER 16, 2018, fifty-five-year-old Gary Giles noticed pain in his back and neck. He sought treatment from a chiropractor but the pain persisted. He developed flu-like symptoms along with numbness, tingling, and spasms. Giles was hospitalized on October 20; an MRI showed that his brain was experiencing seizures—as many as sixteen per hour. A mysterious neurological disease, doctors suspected, was attacking his body. He then began to have difficulty swallowing; he refused water. His daughter, Crystal, mopped a continuous stream of saliva from his chin. Still his health deteriorated. More than two dozen bewildered, devastated family members crowded into Giles’s room to say goodbye. On November 4, he died.

His wife, Juanita, was at their home south of Salt Lake City, Utah, two days later when state health officials—alarm in their voices—called to tell her the results of her husband’s autopsy: the cause of Gary’s death was rabies. Anyone in contact with Gary in his last days needed to immediately receive rabies shots—or experience the same fate. Juanita and twenty-five members of the family immediately got the shots. Weeks later, they were shocked to receive a $50,000 bill for the inoculations. Giles was the first Utahn to die of rabies since 1944.

The Giles family witnessed a rare event—less than a handful of Americans die each year from rabies—but their financial devastation from medical expenses is absurdly common. When journalist Sarah Kliff gathered data about emergency room bills in 2018, she discovered that rabies shots were a frequent charge contributing to consumer medical debt. In a piece for Vox in February, 2018, she wrote that prices ran as high as $10,000 (the same shots cost approximately $1,600 in the UK). People who are uninsured or underinsured and potentially infected with rabies face a grim choice: fatal disease or crippling debt.

More here.