Double Hit

A local public advocacy attorney vows to change hospital billing laws, after one hits close to home

Jennifer Morse puts the ingredients for pizza dough into the KitchenAid and turns it on, then she gets out the "Getting Better Book."

"We call it the Getting Better Book' because we're getting better," she says, standing at the kitchen counter and flipping the cover of the scrapbook to the first page. It shows her tan Toyota Camry station wagon, the right side smashed at 45 miles per hour as she made a left turn at dusk from 19th Avenue onto Northern on a Tuesday in late November 2002, not far from the west Phoenix home she shares with her husband, Jonathan, and their two kids. Jennifer had just picked up the kids from her mother's house; the family was planning to watch Ice Age that night.

Morse turns the page, to photos of her children. Both Alexis, 6, and Michael, 14, almost died that evening.

The Morse family, from left: Michael, Jennifer, Jonathan and Alexis.
Matt Garcia
The Morse family, from left: Michael, Jennifer, Jonathan and Alexis.
Michael Morse was in and out of a coma for nearly two weeks.
courtesy of the Morse family
Michael Morse was in and out of a coma for nearly two weeks.

Alexis' broken right leg put her in a neon pink cast from hip to toe, but it's her face that required five hours of surgery; the right half was ripped off, glass embedded so deeply in Alexis' cheekbone that the doctors couldn't get it all out. She almost lost an eye.

Michael was in a coma for almost two weeks. He had a brain injury and a skull fracture. He had broken teeth, his nose was broken in several places and he had a chipped vertebra in his neck. He had a broken collarbone, multiple broken ribs, lung punctures and a collapsed lung. He had bruising on his liver, pancreas and kidneys.

Jennifer had a concussion, but she wouldn't let doctors treat it for hours, she was so distraught over her children.

From the moment she got out of her totaled car, Morse recalls, she panicked that her health insurance wouldn't cover the kids' medical care. She was wrong. United Health Care paid its share.

But Morse was right to worry. The hospitals wanted more. Under Arizona law, if you are in a car accident and receive a settlement from your automobile insurance, in many cases the hospital gets first dibs on that money -- even if you have health insurance.

Alexis was still in a wheelchair, sipping meals through a straw, when a lien for more than $50,000 arrived in the mail, addressed to the 6-year-old. Jennifer found that especially creepy. Hospitals contract with insurance companies to provide care at a reduced, bulk rate. But the hospitals can charge patients for the difference between that reduced rate and their regular rate, if there is settlement money available from a car accident. That's where the lien comes in. State law allows for liens that apply to auto insurance settlements, but not to personal credit or property. Arizona is not unique. Most states have similar laws.

Jennifer flips a few more pages of the "Getting Better Book." Alexis' stitches come out, the raw red cuts heal to faint scars. Michael's neck brace comes off. He smiles shyly for the camera.

The Morses' wounds are mending slowly. The bills have piled up much faster.

After more than a year of negotiations, the Morses will soon get their auto settlement money -- minus a cut for the hospitals, and the hospitals' lawyer. To Jennifer, this amounts to nothing short of double-billing. It's too late for her family to avoid it, but that hasn't stopped Jennifer Morse from launching a crusade to get the law changed and keep millions of dollars in the pockets of auto accident victims, particularly children.

As the latest legislative session gets started this week, it looks like Jennifer might just get her way.

Jennifer Morse is more qualified than most moms to get a law changed. She is a staff attorney at the Arizona Center for Disability Law, where she has worked, among other things, to get funding for mentally ill children. (The center takes no position on her hospital billing crusade, which Morse is undertaking on her own time.) Before that, she worked for the Arizona attorney general, representing Child Protective Services. And before that, she was a special advocate, assigned to kids in state care. (Jonathan recently got his engineering degree at Arizona State University.)

Morse is crafty. Her kitchen counter is stacked with terra cotta pots painted in bright colors, a large one mosaiced with blue and green marbles and tile shards. The "Getting Better Book" has four whimsical paper dolls pasted on the front, representing the four members of her family. Art and writing (see accompanying piece) are obviously a part of her personal therapy.

So is fighting a good fight. When Jennifer and Jonathan finally figured out what was going on, that the hospitals had the right, under Arizona law, to put liens on their children's auto insurance settlements, Jennifer knew who to call. Deb Gullett, a Republican member of the Arizona House of Representatives, chairs the House Health Committee. Before she ran for the House, Gullett served for years as a top aide to U.S. Senator John McCain.

Gullett is a woman who gets her way. Gullett told Morse she would help her change the law -- although the lawmaker made it clear, Morse says, that she could not help her with her family's own ongoing situation.

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