Beaten and broke

Two college-age assault victims struggle to pay their medical costs

Jason Neagles was brutally attacked while walking home one night in the south campus neighborhood last fall. The recent college graduate is now wading through a sea of bureaucracy to try to pay for his medical treatment.

Jason Neagles was brutally attacked while walking home one night in the south campus neighborhood last fall. The recent college graduate is now wading through a sea of bureaucracy to try to pay for his medical treatment.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

In April 2010, one month before he was to graduate from Chico State, 23-year-old Joseph Igbineweka—who was also the Associated Students president at the time—was making plans to return home to the Bay Area, where he hoped to attend graduate school.

In November, Jason Neagles, 24, was planning keep his job at a local sports bar after his December graduation, and eventually move home to Chula Vista, where he could make more money.

What neither had not planned on, however, was becoming the victim of a violent crime and needing emergency medical care. Neither had health insurance. Not surprisingly, they’ve been presented with whopping medical bills and are struggling to find help paying them off.

Igbineweka’s two days in the hospital, two surgeries and ongoing physical therapy costs have surpassed $90,000.

“I had been to the hospital before for illness when I didn’t have insurance, and I knew it was going to be expensive,” Igbineweka said. “I figured it would be a huge amount of money. But sometimes, the budget part is just mind-boggling.”

Neagles had surgery to fix the paper-thin bone beneath his eye socket that was broken. The cost for his ambulance ride, surgery and follow-up visit reached $38,000.

Now, the two men must find ways to pay the bills.

Igbineweka and Neagles are just two of roughly 240 assault victims (excluding child or elderly domestic-violence victims) who entered the doors of Enloe Medical Center’s emergency room in 2010, said Stacy Vincent, nurse manager of the hospital’s Emergency Department.

Most incidents occurred over the weekends and late at night, and many were alcohol-related, she said. “It does appear that the types of patients that get assaulted tend to be in the same demographic,” she said. “It’s the 19-to-25-year-old male that we usually see, the ones who are walking from point A to point B.”

Igbineweka’s and Neagles’ attacks fit that mold.

Igbineweka was walking home from a party on West Sacramento Avenue around 2 a.m. on a Sunday when he was attacked by two men who yelled racial slurs and stabbed him six times in his neck, chest and arms. The worst damage was to his left arm. A passerby called an ambulance, and Igbineweka readily accepted treatment. “It was natural for me to say yes [to the ambulance], and that I did want help,” he said from his Oakland home during a recent phone interview.

He was rushed the five blocks to Enloe’s emergency room, his parents were contacted and he waited in a bed, cold and in pain. A few minutes later, he was wheeled off to an operating room to receive stitches. “Next thing I remember, I woke up in the morning,” he said. Since then, he’s undergone two surgeries, including a tendon transfer in his left hand.

The attack on Neagles seems to have been just as random as Igbineweka’s. He and a friend were walking home around the area of Fourth and Normal streets in the wee hours of the morning when they were approached by two women, who asked the men to chaperone them for safety.

“We broke off from [the women], and out of nowhere I got hit in the face,” Neagles said. “I went down to the ground and started getting kicked, and I went unconscious.”

Dazed and confused, he was taken to the hospital by ambulance. Surprisingly, he wasn’t robbed during the encounter. At Enloe, he signed a right-to-refuse medical treatment form because he didn’t have insurance. But he returned to the hospital a few hours later with his dad, who insisted he have his bloody eye X-rayed.

Since their attacks, both men have been working to take advantage of the financial help that’s available to them. They were contacted by the Butte County Victim/Witness Assistance Center, which helps individuals file claims with the state’s victim-compensation board, a program that gives financial assistance to victims of violent crime.

They also were given advice about Medi-Cal and Enloe’s discount programs and payment plans, which alleviate costs for uninsured individuals based on income.

Neagles received surgery on his eye socket and is healing well, but he’s playing the waiting game with insurance companies. He lost coverage under his dad’s insurance when he turned 24, just three months before the November attack. However, under President Obama’s new health-care policies, that coverage was reinstated on Jan. 1, and he may now be eligible for retroactive insurance.

“They may cover some of the [costs of the] injuries, because I was only off insurance for four months,” he said.

However, he can’t receive a dime from the state’s victim-compensation program until he finds out how much (if any) of the costs will be absorbed by his reinstated insurance.

“I may be getting off the hook with some of these bills, but it’s still up in the air. Right now, I could end up having to pay the $38,000 that I owe,” Neagles said. “Or they could take care of me, I don’t know. I have to wait and see.”

So far, no suspects have been charged for either attack.

In December, the Chico Police Department announced it had found a possible DNA match for Igbineweka’s assailant, but an arrest has yet to be made, said Sgt. Rob Merrifield.

Neagles said he does not expect an arrest to be made in his case because police have so little information about his attackers. If someone were to be arrested, charged and found guilty of either attack, that person could be sued for the medical expenses, as well as other losses.

Neagles has recovered emotionally from his attack because he was unconscious during the most horrific events, he said.

Igbineweka, on the other hand, is still recovering.

He has been able to pay his emergency-room bills through a combination of out-of-pocket cash and help from the victim-compensation program, but he’s still racking up medical bills. He has minimal use of his left arm and hand and drives to Chico from the Bay Area almost weekly to see his physical therapist, who is familiar with his injury and treatment plan.

While he was living in Chico, Igbineweka qualified for the County Medical Services Program (CMSP)—which provides health coverage for low-income individuals in rural areas—but he no longer qualifies while living in Oakland. He said it’s the money required by ongoing treatment—including physical therapy—that’s caused him the biggest burden.

“I paid two-thirds or so of my bills, but I’m still stuck with the remaining bills. Medical bills are only one aspect of all this stuff,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate, and I have to do it.”

The attack has forced him to set his life on a different track.

“It’s made me make some major changes, in terms of where I see myself in the next couple of years,” he said. “I was planning on going to school to get my master’s, but I really can’t do that while juggling everything every day, like making my doctor’s appointments,” Igbineweka said.

Instead, he is focusing on his current job in the pharmaceutical field as a medical reimbursement specialist, as well as “getting my hand back,” he said.

“That just wasn’t my plan when I was thinking about getting out of college,” he said.