Grandfather visiting from India faced with $64,000 medical debt after heart attack

A West Auckland couple fear they would lose their home after a crowdfunding drive on Givealittle raised just a fraction of the $64,000 they need to pay their father’s medical bill.

John Lobo, 68, was visiting from Goa India when he suffered a heart attack on December 30 last year and required hospitalisation and quadruple bypass surgery.

With no insurance, he was slapped with a bill of $23,473 from the Waitemata District Health Board for services at Waitakere Hospital, and $40,725 from Auckland DHB for the surgery and related services.

Lobo’s daughter, Karen Barco and her husband Daryl, both 38, have been making small weekly payments – but with a combined after-tax income of $1500 and with a mortgage of $650, they are really struggling to make ends meet.

At the beginning of last year, things were looking up for the Barcos. Their son Kenan, who they had tried seven years to conceive, had turned 1 and they were finally settling into their own home in Henderson after years of renting.

So when Lobo said he wanted to come for a visit and spend some time with his grandson, Karen was thrilled.

“I rushed to book an air ticket online for my dad, and in my excitement I did not even think about getting any insurance,” said Karen, an operator with a security company.

He arrived in New Zealand last March, about a week before borders were closed to all travellers except citizens and permanent residents.

When the doctors at the hospital told her that her father needed urgent heart surgery, Karen said her own heart skipped a beat.

“Without insurance, I knew we were going to be faced with a hefty bill that we can’t afford but it was my dad’s life and that was the priority,” she said.

“I asked the doctors if he could travel back to India for the surgery, but they said he wasn’t fit to travel and anyway, there weren’t flights back to India at the time.”

Karen then placed her hope on Givealittle, appealing to would-be donors to consider their case as an emergency.

“In the present circumstances, with our accommodation, childcare and economic losses in our wages due to the pandemic we are unable to meet the medical payments of the hospital,” she wrote.

But after six months, they managed to raise only $9500 from 119 donors through the page.

Daryl, a chef at Brazilian steakhouse Wildfire, said the hospital had given them five years to pay the bill before passing it on to debt collectors.

“We are just struggling and living hand to mouth, there is no way we will be able to afford to pay the bill, and I am so worried that could mean we lose our house and the stability we wanted to give our son,” he said.

“We have already cut back on every unnecessary expense until there is nothing more to cut back on. My father-in-law is also not rich and doesn’t have savings. After Givealittle, I really don’t know what else to do.”

Daryl, also from Goa, moved to New Zealand in 2007 in search of a better life and Karen joined him in 2011.

As Catholics, Daryl said they have been keeping the faith and praying for a miracle.

Lobo said he felt “awful” because his intention in coming to New Zealand was so he could help the couple.

“I wanted to help them in caring for my grandson so they can have more free time, or focus on work. Instead I have become a burden to them, and I feel terrible,” he said.

“It’s really awful seeing them under such pressure because of me, and I feel so helpless.”

Between July 2015 and June 2020, non-residents received almost $204.4 million worth of hospital treatment in New Zealand, with more than $68.5m written-off as bad debt.

A Ministry of Health spokesman told the Herald earlier this year that it was important anyone needing emergency care could get it, which inevitably led to bad debt as some patients could not afford to pay while others could not be traced.

Lobo said unlike other foreigners with no family members in New Zealand, he could not just “pack up and leave”.

“My daughter and her family are well settled here, and if I just went off, they will still be left to face the burden,” he said.

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