In September 2018, Lauren Bard gave birth to her daughter, Sadie, at only 26 weeks. Sadie weighed less than a pound and a half; she could fit in her mother’s hands, according to ProPublica. In November of 2019, Lauren was sent a medical bill for the over three and a half months her baby had no choice but to stay in the hospital. The total? A shocking $898,984.
As an ER nurse at St. Bernadine Medical Center in San Bernardino, California, Lauren knew the high costs associated with a premature baby. Her daughter spent her first 105 days in the NICU, and Lauren herself spent nine days recovering in the hospital, where she later returned due to an infection. Three days after she had Sadie at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center, Lauren called Anthem Blue Cross, her health insurance company, to put Sadie on her plan. She told ProPublica that both UC Irvine and Anthem Blue Cross’s billing departments said Sadie was covered. Lauren spent as much time as possible in the NICU with Sadie, who doctors said had a 50/50 chance of survival.
In the back of her mind, Lauren assumed that Dignity Health, the organization that owned the hospital she worked for, would cover her and her baby’s rising medical costs. What she didn’t know was Dignity requires employees to enroll newborns in their healthcare program within 31 days of being born. When Lauren called the Dignity billing department, it was 39 days after Sadie was born. Dignity, which markets itself with mottos like “Hello humankindness” and lists furthering “the healing ministry of Jesus” in its mission statement, told Lauren that she was too late to get Sadie coverage by them.
Lauren desperately started searching for public health insurance companies that would be able to help cover the growing costs of the care Sadie required. But before she knew it, the bills started arriving. The first bill came in November 2018, at $206. Two months later, she received another for over $1,000. By April, the bills had reached $69,362. Soon, they totaled almost one million dollars. “I’ll either work for the rest of my life or file for bankruptcy,” Lauren told ProPublica.
In the meantime, Lauren didn’t give up on finding a workaround for Dignity’s 31-day limit. The organization stood firm that they’d informed her of their deadline when she was first hired, six years prior. She wrote two separate appeals to Dignity, both were denied. There were no exceptions to the deadline, Dignity said. But when ProPublica reached out to the federal Labor Department, an official said that exceptions could be made, as long as they were offered to all employees. The official also said that exceptions are more likely to be granted to people with “adverse health factors,” which Lauren and her baby certainly qualified under.
After Dignity declined her appeals, Lauren had an $898,000 bill to pay. Settling it with a payment plan of $100 a month would be impossible; if she went that route, “it would take so long I’d be dead,” Lauren said.
On October 7, Lauren took to Facebook with a photo of the astronomical bill and the caption, “When Dignity Health (the company I work for) screws you out of your daughter’s insurance…” Soon after, ProPublica contacted a media representative at Dignity about the story. A little over a week after Lauren’s Facebook post and conversation with ProPublica, the senior vice president of Dignity Southern California called Lauren to apologize. Two days later, Dignity agreed to make an exception. The company enrolled Lauren’s daughter in their healthcare plan and said they would retroactively cover her bills.
Lauren and her fiance, Nathan Benton, still don’t know if the total bill amount will rise. She is skeptical that Dignity would have ever covered Sadie had ProPublica not reached out to the company, and equally dubious of the Christian ideals Dignity claims. Today, Sadie is 13 months and consistently hitting developmental milestones, despite several surgeries after her premature birth. Her parents lovingly—and rightfully—refer to her as their “million-dollar baby.”