A Redondo Beach woman claims that South Bay Hospital refused to treat a bleeding gash under her right eye because she owed about $300 from a previous bill.
"I have worked in hospitals since I was 18," said the woman, Margaret Presgraves, 56, who is a certified nursing assistant. "I have never in my life seen anyone treated the way I was treated."
The scene ended with a South Bay Hospital nurse telling Presgraves and a companion, "Now you wouldn't go to Ralphs and get some groceries and check them out without some money, now would you?" The nurse later confirmed that she had made the remark.
A spokesman for South Bay Hospital, however, denied that Presgraves had been turned away, saying that the woman was offered treatment but chose to go elsewhere. The spokesman added that in accordance with state law, South Bay turns away no one who requires emergency care but cannot pay.
The incident began the afternoon of May 29 when Presgraves was mopping the kitchen floor in her home on Huntington Lane in Redondo Beach. She said she slipped, fell, hit her stove and was knocked unconscious. A grown son who lives with her was at work.
"When I woke up," she said, "I was covered in blood all over."
She had Stephen Russo, 28, a friend, drive her to nearby South Bay Hospital, a profit-making institution.
The emergency room secretary checked her name against hospital records and informed her, according to Presgraves and Russo, that she owed about $300.
"It was from an old bill when I had heart problems," Presgraves said, adding that most of the original bill of about $2,000 had been paid off by her daughter several months ago. She said she has not been able to pay off the bill because she has little money aside from the $184.50 a month she gets in state relief payments while she applies for Social Security disability benefits. Presgraves said the secretary initially informed her that she would have to pay off the balance before she could be treated but then told her to take a seat. After a while, a nurse named Monica (the hospital refused to release her last name) called Presgraves into a treatment room.
"She asked me how I felt," Presgraves said. "I said my face and head hurts and my vision is blurred. She put me up on the table and she cleaned the wound.
"And then this doctor . . . came and looked. . . . (The emergency room secretary) came in and talked to the doctor."
Presgraves said the doctor told her he could not treat her because she owed money to the hospital.
"I said, 'If I didn't owe you money and if I had money today to pay you, what would you do for me?' He said, 'I would send you to X-ray and have your cheek X-rayed. I would suture up your eye, which would require about five or six stitches, and I would give you something for pain. I can't do that because you owe us money. You do need sutures but I can't do it.' He said, 'You are going to have to leave here and go someplace else for treatment.' "
South Bay Hospital's version of what happened at this point differs from what Presgraves said.
Hospital spokesman Glenn Scott said the doctor, whom he declined to identify, offered to stitch up Presgraves' cut.
"We have treated her many times. The doctor offered to suture her eye and (said) that she needed further follow-up and she should go to Harbor General. This seemed to irritate her," Scott said.
The hospital's general policy, he said, is "we do not refuse treatment to anyone. When we are talking about welfare patients, we always treat them, stabilize them before we send them to Harbor General. We do that and all hospitals do that because Harbor General is set up for that purpose. They receive reimbursement from the state and county. On life-threatening cases, we do not transfer that patient until that patient is stable."
According to a telephone survey of eight other South Bay hospitals, including Harbor General, a county hospital, the standard emergency medical care policy is much the same as South Bay Hospital's--to treat patients without reference to ability to pay, transferring them only after their condition has stabilized.
Referring to Presgraves' case, Scott continued, "We do not like to run up high bills on follow-up care. . . . This lady was stable. We offered to suture her eye. The chart is here. That is our record, the doctor's record of the case."
Scott said that South Bay Hospital conservatively estimated that it had $350,000 in bad debts directly attributable to emergency room treatment. "I don't want it to look that, because we have had these losses, that we are turning people away, because we are not, but we do have to control it," he said.
Told of the hospital's account, Presgraves replied, "None of this is true. If they had offered, do you think I would have gone to another hospital when I was already there? Give me a break!"