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Experts to discuss options for financial assistance with medical care

SALT LAKE CITY — Much to the chagrin of patients, medical bills can add up quickly, leaving some well-meaning people unable to pay.

"We understand that life happens. You change jobs, your car breaks down, or something else makes you have to choose between going broke paying your hospital bills or paying for something else," said George Knudsen, an eligibility counselor with Intermountain Healthcare's financial assistance program.

Knudsen said he works with patients to resolve unmet medical obligations.

The large, Utah-based nonprofit Intermountain Healthcare system wrote off more than $252 million in 2012, helping 239,195 patients with charity care. It is an option for any patient, regardless of whether they have insurance and depending on their financial circumstances.

"I think there are a lot of people out there who need help, and we try not to turn people away," said Alberto Calderon, who screens patients for financial assistance at the organization's flagship hospital, Intermountain Medical Center. "It is our policy to help everybody we can."

The write-offs also help Intermountain, as it includes the donated care in its annual taxes, but the real intention, Calderon said, is to help the community the system serves.

Calderon and Knudsen, who will be available for questions from the public during Saturday's Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Health Hotline, are trained to exhaust other resources before offering charity care. In most cases, uninsured patients can qualify for state or federally funded health care programs.

But all kinds of situations exist, for patients of all walks of life, where financial help can come in handy.

"People are generally good-natured, and they want to contribute as much as they can to cover their care," Knudsen said, adding that insurance doesn't cover everything.

He said $2,000 is the average per-person deductible that people face when receiving medical care.

Treatment in a hospital, however, racks up the bills. Calderon said a week spent in the intensive care unit almost always results in charges of $100,000 or more.

"You don't have to sell your house to pay your medical bills," he said. "We don't like to see patients in that state."

Anyone interested in speaking with the two specialists is welcome to call the hotline at 800-925-8177 between 10 a.m. to noon Saturday for confidential and free advice. Questions can also be posted during that time on the Deseret News’ Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/DeseretNews. Questions posted online, however, are not private.

Individuals applying for financial assistance within the system are strictly screened and all information is verified. It is best if the patient is a Utah resident, but Knudsen said Intermountain will help as many people as it can.

It offers a 40 percent discount on services to anyone who can pay cash up front, which tends to be enough help for some people. For others, a simple payment system is implemented and charity care is often a last resort.

"If people need help, it's worth trying to talk to us," Knudsen said. "My job is to be creative for people. People come in with little or no hope ,and I'm able to give them hope to get them through the medical issues they're dealing with."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards