How an insurance problem and a $90,000 medical bill forced a woman into bankruptcy

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Shelby Rickelman’s story is complicated, but she thinks it’s important for others to know what she’s been through.

“I did everything right. I have no credit card debt. I pay all my bills on time. It is not fair. One mistake bankrupted me for the next ten years of my life,” Rickelman said.

Rickelman’s husband is an Army veteran. Military insurance, called TriCare, covered their medical expenses while he served the country.

But in 2019, she says he moved to the ready individual reserve, where he can be called up but doesn’t train regularly with the military. This allowed him to spend more time at home caring for his wife, who has Lyme disease.

“They said they would have about three months of coverage until he got insurance for his new job,” Rickelman recalled.

She says they weren’t told what would happen to their cover as soon as he went to the individual ready reserve.

“They canceled our coverage the day he left the military,” Rickelman said.

Her medical records show that less than a week after her husband’s transfer became official, she received intravenous therapy and medication for her Lyme disease.

Rickelman said she initially received a bill from her local pharmacy. It showed the insurance covered all but $28.

She also has a screenshot of her doctor’s office which showed that on January 23, 2019, her insurance was listed as active on their computers.

On January 25, 2019, she received a letter from the Department of Defense stating that her coverage had ended on January 11, 2019, less than a week before her IV treatment.

“We got something in the mail from them saying, ‘Oh, hey, your insurance is over. You no longer have our insurance,” Rickelman said.

In June 2019, she received a letter stating that, without insurance, she had to pay $91,222.65.

“I opened it and was in disbelief, I felt like it didn’t feel real,” Rickelman said.

Rickelman called TriCare, which claimed the screenshot of its doctor’s office, showing that its coverage was active, was the result of a glitch.

“I called about 12 different attorneys, and all of them said there was nothing they could do to help me, and I felt really hopeless,” Rickelman said. “I was told the best thing to do was to file for bankruptcy.”

In 2020, records show Rickelman filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

“My credit dropped about 240 points,” Rickelman said. “It stays on your credit report for 10 years, so you can’t buy a house, you can’t buy a car, you can’t get a credit card.”

Adam Fox, Deputy Director of Colorado Consumer Health Initiativesays he sees people stuck in difficult situations all the time with medical bills.

“That often means they’re giving up on other things in their life, maybe paying medical bills instead of paying their rent or their mortgage,” Fox said.

The nonprofit organization has saved people millions of dollars in the fight against medical debt.

In Rickelman’s case, Fox said the system generally doesn’t consider receiving bad information or a problem as an excuse.

There’s not much she can do now but wait another eight years until the bankruptcy no longer shows up on her credit report. However, she hopes her story can be a call for change.

“Seeing how broken the healthcare system was, made me want to be open and talk about it and tell people it can happen,” Rickelman said. “You can be perfectly fine and a small problem with your insurance can change things dramatically.”

Scripps National contacted TriCare for more details on Rickelman’s case and was told a team would review the case for further details. At the time of publication, we had not yet received this information from TriCare.

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