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How an insurance issue and a $90k medical bill forced a woman into bankruptcy

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Posted at 2:32 PM, Jul 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-26 14:32:16-04

Shelby Rickelman’s story is complicated, but she believes it’s important for others to know what she's gone through.

“I've done everything right. I have no credit card debt. I pay all my bills on time. This isn’t fair. One mistake has put me in bankruptcy 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 transitioned to Individual Ready Reserve, where he can be called upon but doesn't train with the military regularly. It 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 on his new job,” Rickelman recalled.

She says they weren’t told about what would happen to their coverage as soon as he went on Individual Ready Reserve.

“They canceled our coverage the day he got out of the military," Rickelman said

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

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

She also has a screenshot from her doctor's office that showed on January 23, 2019, her insurance was shown as active on their computers.

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

“We got something in the mail from them saying, 'Oh, hey your insurance is done. You don’t have our insurance anymore,'" Rickelman said.

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

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

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

“I called like 12 different lawyers, and all said there was nothing they could do to help me, and I felt really hopeless," Rickelman said. “I was told the best thing I could do is declare 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 the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, said he sees people caught in difficult situations with medical bills all the time.

“It often means they are forgoing 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 fighting medical debt.

In Rickelman's case, Fox said the system doesn’t generally see being given bad information or a glitch as an excuse.

There’s not much she can do now, but wait eight more years until bankruptcy no longer appears 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 speak about it and tell people that this can happen," Rickelman said. "You can be perfectly fine and one little glitch with your insurance can change things dramatically."

Scripps National reached out to TriCare for more details on Rickelman's case and was told a team would be reviewing the case for specifics. At the time of publishing, we have yet to receive that information from TriCare.