With a new part-time job, medications that work and plenty of hope, John Price has been going about the hard work of rebuilding a life devastated by mental illness.
He and his father were even allowing themselves to celebrate a little when the call came last month. A debt collector from the Ohio attorney general’s office was demanding $61,127.26, which the state says Price owes for being treated — involuntarily — in state psychiatric hospitals between 2008 and 2010.
At $25 a month, the most he can afford to pay, the interest-bearing debt will be even larger in a year. The state sent him payment coupons.
“I didn’t have a choice about going to these hospitals,” said Price, 52, who lives northwest of Downtown.
Advocates for the mentally ill say treatment shouldn’t leave a legacy of financial roadblocks. But it sometimes does.
“I think we have seen an uptick in states’ seeking to recoup expenses,” said Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Seemingly few patients, however, have the ability to pay. Less than 15 percent of people with serious mental illness are employed, Honberg said, and many are indigent.
“If the goal is to rehabilitate people and to help them get back into the workforce, to now come after him and put this kind of pressure on him is very, very counterproductive,” he said. “It doesn’t serve anyone’s interests, least of all the state.”
John’s 76-year-old father, David Price, is helping his son financially. He said he’s grateful that police officers who responded to John’s struggles and psychotic episodes over the years saw fit to steer him to help instead of jail. But the Plain City retiree said he never imagined the more-humane option could lead to a lifetime of debt.
“It’s not rational, really,” David Price said. “This would pretty much erase all chances of his being independent.”
Privacy laws prevent the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services from discussing the case or even confirming whether John Price was a patient, Melissa Craddock, a spokeswoman, said in an email.
Craddock said state psychiatric hospitals are like other health-care providers in that they have a duty to taxpayers to collect when possible. Delinquencies are referred to the attorney general’s office for action. There are opportunities for financial assistance and the waiving of debt for those who qualify.
Price thinks he filled out a waiver application at one point. He wonders whether his status as a former state employee who will be eligible for a pension is a disqualifying asset.
Tapping into his modest pension to pay the debt would only serve to impoverish him later, he said. Price now receives Medicare because of his disability.
Terry Russell, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio, said he thinks most state-hospital debt is written off before it goes to the attorney general for collection.
“There’s just no call for this,” Russell said. “If someone is in the state hospital, they’re not working. It doesn’t make sense.”
Price had jobs years ago at Ohio State and Ohio universities. He has degrees from Miami University and Boston University and studied microbiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“He’s a really brilliant guy,” his father said.
The illness that took hold — bipolar and schizoaffective disorders — caused him to lose his careers. “Now, I’m a cashier at Walmart,” he said, smiling.
But he has learned about his illness, understands and accepts it and adheres to an effective medication regimen. He wants to keep moving forward without an impossible debt burden.
“Getting that cashier’s job at Walmart was step one,” Price said. “It was the beginning of building a foundation.”
By Rita Price - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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