13 Investigates: Why you're paying millions for gunshot hospital bills without getting shot

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Thursday, September 22, 2022
13 Investigates: How YOU pay $38M for gunshot victims' medical care
13 Investigates found even if you're not a shooting victim, you're paying for the cost of crime, including $38 million in care at the county hospital.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Mitra Bolton was standing beside her car and shuffling through her purse after leaving a convenience store on Houston's south side.

From the corner of her eye, she saw a truck backing out and a white car following it. She didn't think anything of it and kept looking for her keys.

"As the car passed me up, they hung out the window and shot backwards," Bolton said.

She said she ran back inside the store, but because she was wearing a black shirt, she didn't realize she was shot until she lifted it up and saw blood dripping down her chest.

"I had a lot of holes in my shirt," Bolton told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "It went in through my breasts and it came out. The doctor was telling (me it was) five inches from my heart, so I was just blessed."

The shooting happened at about 7:45 p.m. on April 26, 2021. By midnight, she was out of the hospital and back home to heal. But, more than a year later, Bolton is still paying medical bills related to the shooting and she's not alone.

Our investigation found that even if you're not a gunshot victim yourself - and don't know any of the 120 people who survive shootings every month on average - Houston and Harris County residents still pay millions of dollars every year to help treat those victims at the county hospital.

Taxpayers spent $38 million treating gunshot victims over a recent 12-month period, according to data provided by Harris Health, which serves as the county's public health system. The costs went toward everything from X-rays and pain management for minor wounds, to ICU visits for more serious injuries.

From June 1, 2021, through May 31, 2022, Harris County hospitals spent $45 million treating gunshot victims, according to Harris Health. They told us about 84% of their costs come directly from taxpayers, either through Harris County tax dollars or through Medicare and Medicaid's federal funds, meaning the cost to treat gunshot victims was at least $38 million over that recent one-year period.

But, that's only the cost to us.

Private hospitals didn't share their data with us so we don't know exactly how much victims have had to spend out-of-pocket getting care after being shot.

"Most of the care I'm providing is to underinsured patients or totally non-insured patients who get shot. Their care is paid for by the county. This is a county hospital, so all of those charges that we assign to the care of that patient, it comes out of the money that we get from Harris County Commissioners Court," Dr. Chad Wilson, trauma medical director at Ben Taub Hospital, said. "I hope people understand that."

While hundreds of people die every year in Houston homicides, 13 Investigates found even more survive shootings.

There was an average of 13 shooting victims every day in Houston in 2021 and 30% of them resulted in someone getting injured, according to data from the Houston Police Department.

Last year, 1,447 of the 4,891 shooting victims were injured. Overall, there have been 11% fewer shootings during the first six months of 2022 compared to the same time period last year, according to the latest available data.

Still, there have been hundreds of people injured in shootings so far this year.

"In a 12-hour shift overnight, you can sometimes see as many as 10 people who are shot," said Wilson, who is also an associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. "Some of them will have minor injuries and they'll get released that same day. Some of them will come in, essentially dead on arrival, and then my primary job is to take care of those people who are in between - who have serious injuries that need an intervention to make them feel better."

During a one-year period from June 1, 2021, through May 31, 2022, Ben Taub spent $29 million on inpatient treatment for 333 gunshot survivors who were victims of assault. It cost about $8,000 for each gunshot victim that was treated in the emergency room, with the cost escalating to $87,000 per person if the shooting victim had to be admitted for treatment.

"If we could prevent the person from being shot, then it would be an expense that wasn't necessary," Wilson said. "It's much harder to prevent people from getting coronary artery disease or preventing people from getting diabetes or preventing people from getting cancer versus something that seems like it's so much more preventable because it's an event that just seems like it doesn't have to happen."

SEE ALSO: How residents in this North Harris County neighborhood became numb to crime

Bolton was released from the hospital the same day she was shot, but when she finally got home that night and tried to fall asleep, she was still in pain.

She feels blessed she made it home alive, especially since she said police told her 11 shots were fired but she was only hit once. Still, she continues to pay for that night.

Bolton said her friends took her to Memorial Hermann, a private hospital, the night of the shooting. She still feels pain in her chest from when she was shot, and since she doesn't have insurance or a primary care physician, she went to Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center for after-care.

Between the two hospitals, she said she's on a payment plan for about $10,000 in medical bills - all because she was an innocent bystander in a drive-by shooting.

She's paying for the shooting mentally, too. The stress has caused her blood pressure to fluctuate, she gets headaches often and can't sleep at night. She can't even look in the mirror at the scar on her chest, from where she was shot, without breaking down.

"When I sleep, I still see this playing in my vision," she said. "I still see the man hanging out (of) the car. I see everything. It bothers me a lot. I wake up in the middle of night and sometimes I'll call my sister and she'll be like, 'it's okay.' She'll talk to me, calm me back down and I'll be alright."

'Just wish they would stop'

Last year in the neighborhood where Bolton was shot, there were 193 shootings, with 57 people who were injured.

"My cousin's been shot (by) accident. A guy that I was dating, he got killed back in the same area that I got shot in," she said. "I've seen a lot of things, but I wouldn't expect it to (happen to) me."

At the county's Ben Taub Hospital, Dr. Wilson was initially surprised by how often gunshot victims come into the emergency room, too.

He moved to Houston from New York City, where he was working at Bellevue, a public hospital.

"People tend to think that New York City is this really rough place but ... (there) I might see a gunshot wound every third or fourth night on call. In fact, I can only remember taking a handful of people to the operating room for gunshot wounds when I was working at Bellevue," Wilson said. "Then I moved here and I just couldn't believe it. My first night on call, it was just gunshot wound after gunshot wound after gunshot wound. The variation in the amount of gun violence was so immediately palpable that I was like, 'there's just something different about this community. There's something else going on that's different here.' Which of course makes you want to ask the question: what is that and how can we change it so that we see less gun violence here in Houston like I saw in that part of New York City."

Wilson said the first time he helped treat a gunshot wound victim as a medical student doing rotations was "exhilarating."

"We fixed everything and he had a happy outcome," Wilson said. "I said that's something that I would love to do and I fell in love with it."

It was less exhilarating after the 10th time he treated a gunshot victim, and by the 100th time, he said he found himself wondering, "Is there a way that I cannot have to do this every night of the week?"

"After doing it maybe a thousand times at this point in my life, I'm weary. It's no longer exhilarating. It's frustrating. It's sad. I think about my children and I just don't want them to be raised in a world that (is) more violent than the world that I grew up in," he said. "I really don't want there to be a need for someone to be as experienced as I am in taking care of firearm injuries."

Wilson said gunshot wounds can range from lethal to spinal cord injuries that paralyze someone or soft tissue injuries where the person is released quickly. Still, he said, the physical pain caused by each shooting injury is often accompanied with mental anguish.

"You really can't even classify a gunshot wound as being minor because (it's) still going to have an incredible impact on that person. That person may have PTSD after being shot at or shot. That person may not be able to go back to whatever lifestyle or community they lived in and not be fearful," he said.

Bolton, who was shot in a corner store parking lot, said the shooting changed her outlook on life.

She had to get rid of her car she was standing behind the day she was shot - even though it still worked, it brought back too many memories of that day.

She won't go to the gas station alone. She used to go out with friends on the weekends, but now her days consist of going to work and coming home.

On the rare occasions she decides to go out for lunch with her sister, Bolton said she's always nervous and looking around. If she hears people talking about guns, or starting to argue, she gets anxious and upset, and leaves the room afraid she might get shot again.

"It's very unfair, but whatever it takes for me to still be here on Earth, I will do it because I don't wish death on anybody or crimes or anything on anybody. Nobody deserves to get shot. Nobody deserves none of that," she said. "It's more death after death and more shooting and killing. I just wish they would stop."

At 10 p.m. on Monday, 13 Investigates will share the story of another shooting victim as part of our investigation into the mental and physical cost of shootings. Tune in to hear from Houston police on how many of the city's thousands of shootings get solved every year.

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