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Who Has To Pay Marlise Munoz’s Medical Bills?

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The saga of Marlise Muñoz has been well-documented over the past few weeks. It became a national flashpoint for an ethical and legal debate that saw Muñoz—who, after suffering a pulmonary embolism in November, stopped breathing for an unknown period of time, leaving her brain-dead—become a figure in the parts of the culture wars that deal with the unborn. Muñoz was fourteen weeks pregnant when she died, and despite her husband and parents insisting that as a paramedic, she’d seen what keeping a person on life support who was no longer functioning was like and would not want that for herself, John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth claimed that Texas law required them to keep someone who was pregnant on a ventilator to maintain the operation of their heart and lungs.

Ultimately, the case was settled in the courts, as state district judge R. H. Wallace Jr. ruled that Muñoz was legally dead, and thus the law in question did not apply in her case. The hospital removed her from the ventilator on January 26, and Marlise Muñoz’s vital functions ceased. 

Erick Muñoz, her husband and the father of their fifteen-month-old son, has been living a very difficult past few months—suffering the loss of his wife and the baby they were anticipating, fighting a legal battle to ensure her wishes were carried out, and dealing with a macabre situation in which he was unable to bury his wife until the legal questions were finally resolved. But the next few months may be tough, too, for a very different reason: A question has arisen about who is responsible for the cost of the ventilator that Marlise Muñoz was hooked up to for the months following her death, and the answer could turn out to be her husband.

Muñoz had health insurance at the time of her death, but the hospital declared her brain-dead on November 28, two days after the embolism. The court agreed that she had been legally dead when it ordered her removed from life support, which means that her insurance company would have a strong argument that it isn’t responsible for unnecessary treatment—like keeping the organs functioning on a dead patient.

According to KHOU, Muñoz hasn’t received a bill from the hospital for the services provided after his wife was declared brain-dead on the 28th—and that bill was for two days of services at $10,000. 

Erick Muñoz said he is completely in the dark when it comes to billing. He told News 8 that two medical bills came to his home from John Peter Smith Hospital early on, but there haven’t been any since.

“To force Eric Muñoz into bankruptcy over an act that was clearly inappropriate and wrong and should have never happened is completely and totally unfair,” said his lawyer, Heather King.

Koons Fuller, the firm representing Muñoz, says now that the legal fight over Marlise’s fate is done, the fight over who pays her medical bills may just be getting started. It’s a fight Koons Fuller is willing to help Erick Muñoz with.

It’s possible that the hospital has no intention to bill Muñoz for the treatment, but it’s hardly a sure thing—which may be why the widower’s lawyers are getting preemptively vocal about their willingness to challenge that bill, should it arrive. If the hospital doesn’t bill Muñoz, it’s likely that it’ll be footed by the Tarrant County taxpayers, since the hospital is publicly-funded and county-owned. That’s not an ideal situation, either. 

Liberal political blog DailyKos, meanwhile, has a petition on its website (with over 45,000 signatures at the moment) insisting that the bill should be paid by someone else entirely: namely, the state of Texas, since it was the state’s misapplied law that the hospital cited when it defended its decision to keep Muñoz on life support. That’s a well-meaning petition—one would presumably be hard-pressed to find someone who supports billing Erick Muñoz for legally unnecessary treatment that he actively opposed—but it ignores that the state of Texas, through its courts, is the entity that removed his wife from life support, not the one that kept her on it. 

In any case, one can certainly hope that this is resolved fairly, quietly, and quickly—so Erick Muñoz can get on with his grieving in relative peace.

(Erick Muñoz, husband of Marlise Munoz, is escorted out of court by his attorney Heather L. King, right, Friday, January 24, 2014 in Fort Worth, Texas. Photo via AP.)   

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