SPECIAL REPORT: Life or debt? Medically bankrupt

Local News

SALT LAKE COUNTY (ABC4 News) Life or debt? It’s a difficult question for thousands of Utahns buried in medical bills. Last year, experts say 9,700 people filed for bankruptcy in the state, with the majority doing so because of medical debt. That number is expected to rise as this year since Americans are no longer required to have health insurance.

Tevita Havili reluctantly made that decision last year after an attack that nearly cost him his life.  All he could remember from the night of November 23, 2013, was stepping in to save a friend who was getting beat up during a fight outside of Sandbar in downtown Salt Lake City.

“Apparently, I got jumped by everybody else and the ambulance took me to the hospital at the University of Utah. I woke up with family around me saying, ‘You know you almost died?'” said Havili.

Doctors said he suffered a subdural hematoma and a blood clot in the brain. They removed the right side of his skull after his brain swelled up.

“As far as the investigators and everybody else told me, there was a rumor there was a crowbar, I’m not sure,” he said.

Recovery for Havili required rehabilitation and multiple surgeries. The medical bills stacked up quickly, after his health insurance stopped kicking in.

“I didn’t notice anything until my checks were getting garnished. At first, I was like, ‘Ok. I can just let them keep garnishing my checks until it’s gone.’ But that’s $300,000. That’s a house payment and if I’m going to live my life, I’m not going to pay that and live comfortably,” said Havili.

Salt Lake City police never found out who his attackers were, leaving him to foot the entire bill for his injuries. Ultimately, he made the decision to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy to wipe out his medical debt.

“It was just kind of suffocating to know that I might have to deal with this the rest of my life,” he said. “I was just tired of everything getting piled up with interest and everything like that.”

Havili’s decision to do so is not uncommon. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately 25 percent of adults in the U.S. struggle to pay their medical bills, leading medical debt to be the #1 reason for personal bankruptcy filings nationwide.

Bankruptcy attorney Linh Tran-Layton says it’s an emotionally crippling time for her clients.

“It’s very stressful for them. A lot of time, these clients are people who actually have good credit and still have good credit. But not they’re bogged down by this debt and they don’t know what to do. I’ve had people cry in my office because it’s just something they never thought that they would have to do,” said Linh Tran-Layton, Managing Partner at JLJ Law Group.

Approximately 95 percent of her clients suffer from a medical condition or incident they could not control. Tran-Layton says all it takes is one trip to the hospital for someone to be swimming neck-deep in medical debt.

“Ambulance rides alone are thousands of dollars. A stay in the hospital overnight can be thousands and so can certain testing procedures. Everything can add up, definitely,” she said.

Bankruptcy stays on a person’s credit report for 10 years and can hinder someone’s ability to apply for loans or purchase a home. Havili filed more than a year ago and has already felt the effects.

“I feel…restricted. I feel like there’s a lot of opportunities I’ve lost from filing bankruptcy,” said Havili.

But Tran-Layton says bankruptcy doesn’t mean you’re completely stained financially. She’s helped clients repair their credit immediately, so they don’t have put a pause on life.

“We’ve seen clients be able to buy houses three years from the date of closing of a bankruptcy. So in the short term, they may not qualify for certain types of loans. Interest rates may likely be higher for certain types of loans. But certainly, after a few years, we’ve seen people come out just fine,” she said.

Havili said that’s exactly what motivates him to push forward. While his debt has been wiped out, he said he’s working towards regaining control of his life again.

“It’s drive, inspiration to work harder and get everything back on track. It’s that push I need to get out of bed faster and earlier,” he said.

Tran-Layton said Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is a complete wipeout, isn’t always the best way out for medical debt. The other option is Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which is essentially a debt consolidation plan.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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