Can I be held responsible for my mother's medical bills?

5 answers | Last updated: Nov 27, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother is 93. I am her power of attorney and power of health attorney and manage her finances since her stroke in 2002. On September 29, 2007, I moved her into my house from an assisted living facility as she has spent down most of her income. In January, 2008, she went to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Gatos, CA for breathing problems. They kept her overnight for one day in the hospital. Her Medicare and Blue Cross covered all but $1024.00. She qualifies for help with prescription drugs and receives financial assistance for this. When she was faced with a similar situation in Elk Grove, CA with Methodist Hospital, they covered her stay and she paid nothing. Now the business office for Good Samitaran Hospital is refusing her financial aid, claiming that since she lives with me, they consider the combined incomes of the household. Can they do this legally? Though my name is on her accounts as trustee, our finances are completely separate. Can the hospital hold me responsible for her debt by combining our incomes? HELP!

Expert Answers

Medicare Part A hospital insurance usually leaves some chunk of hospital bills unpaid, even with supplemental Medigap insurance like your mother has. Many hospitals will negotiate with low-income Medicare patients about the part of the bill that Medicare and insurance don't pay. Sometimes a hospital will waive the entire unpaid balance, as the Elk Grove hospital did. But a hospital is not legally obligated to do so. Each hospital makes its own rules about how much of personal bills they will try to collect and how much they will let go. (One of the things some hospitals sometimes consider is total "household" income.) So, the Los Gatos hospital has the legal right to ask your mother for payment of the $1,024.

They do not have the right, however, to hold you personally responsible for the bill. Having either power of attorney for finances or power of attorney for health care does not make you personally responsible for any of your mother's unpaid bills. It does, though, give you the right to negotiate with the hospital on your mother's behalf. Contact the billing office of the hospital and ask to discuss the bill with them. Explain your mother's financial situation, including the fact that her income is low enough for her to qualify for assistance with the Medicare prescription drug program. Ask if they will waive the unpaid bill, or at least accept a lower amount.

If you don't have any luck directly with the hospital, you might contact the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP), whose free, expert counselors may be able to help you negotiate with the hospital. You can find the local HICAP office nearest you by going to the list provided online by the state Department of Aging or by calling the central HICAP phone number 800-434-0222.

For future medical care, you might want to consider applying for Medi-Cal (California's version of Medicaid) for your mother. Medi-Cal is for people with low income and few assets, and in California eligibility can be extended to people who might have slightly too much income if they also have have substantial medical bills. If your mother qualifies, Medi-Cal can pay almost all portions of her future hospital or doctor bills that Medicare and insurance don't cover. To find out about Medi-Cal, go the Medi-Cal "Where to Get Help" page on the web site of the California Department of Health Care Services.

Community Answers

Clarisa answered...

One of the very critical things to do, whether or not you are legally responsible for your mother's medical bills, is to check that the insurance providers are indeed covering what they should.  It is not uncommon for insurance providers to make mistakes when determining coverage for medical claims.  I have worked for 10 years with seniors and thier children, helping them understand and better manage thier medical claims.  I have written an article on tips for making sure seniors get the coverage they deserve which is free on my website

Ingodwetrust answered...

I live in Maryland and work for a well known state administration. In September 2003 my father had died of brain cancer within weeks of being told from doctors who performed the test and treatments for him. Anyhow, a law judge lawyer that I had worked with told me that my mother, myself or anyone else was NOT responsible for his outstanding bills because ONLY his name was on all the medical bills...(even though my parents had medical insurance together)and when any bills were sent to the house to return it back only with a "copy" of my fathers death certificate. I hope this to date we have NOT received any problems from his medical facilities!!

Pat a answered...

You are not responsible for your mother's medical bills unless you agreed to be responsible. The admitting papers for hospitals and nursing homes usually have fine print on the back that says the person signing agrees to be responsible for the payment of the medical bills. The admitting clerk's are often trained to try to get your signature, in your name. They will often tell you that you are not agreeing to be personally responsible when the opposite is often the case. You should be careful when you sign medical documents such as admittance papers for hospitals and nursing homes. Simply having a Power of Attorney (POA) usually won't help you if it is not clear from your signature that you are signing for her and are not agreeing to be personally responsible. Never just sign your name! or Mary Smith, Daughter. A good alternative is signing your mother's name by POA i.e. "Jane Doe by POA" Talk to a lawyer in your state to get further information on this subject.

Kalliekaykat answered...

Pat A, you are absolutely right. I recently took a relative to an outpatient ER after a bump on the head. The relative was awake and lucid. The admitting clerk wanted me to sign financial responsibility forms. I asked her point blank, if they would make me liable for the bills and she said 'no' despite the fact that the forms stated that I would be! She lied to my face. When I refused to sign them, she bacame quite annoyed. I told her to take the forms to my relative for her signature, and she eventually did.