Medical debt is the single biggest cause of bankruptcy in America. As the cost of healthcare keeps rising, tackling it is almost impossible for families and taxing for experts.
Some families, like the Wilzbach's of McKinney, are having to take drastic measures to combat medical debt.
Whether it's volleyball, church activities, or carpooling, Marlena Wilzbach is there enjoying life with her daughters.
One afternoon after school, with the family van filled with carpooling kids, the driver of a truck ran a red light and sped straight for the passenger side of her van.
"I twisted (the wheel) as hard as i could and saved my daughter’s life," said Marlena Wilzbach.
They were hit head-on and Marlena took the brunt of the impact. She now has a severe spinal injury and each step is a struggle.
Doctors said she needs an invasive back surgery to have any hope of normal mobility, but there's a price tag.
"I assumed it would be a lot like a car, which is a lot," said Marlena Wilzbach.
It was more like 10 cars. The family would need $300,000 to repair her back.
Mark Wilzbach, Marlena's husband, is self-employed so there’s no medical insurance for him; the man who smashed up the family's minivan is unemployed with no assets and no insurance.
"We're screwed. We're financially behind the 8-ball and the only financial asset we have is our home," said Mark Wilzbach.
The place they raised their daughters is the only thing they own worth enough money that will allow them to put a down payment on the surgery that will allow Marlena to be herself again.
So, they’re putting their home on the market, selling the place filled with so many family memories in order for mom to have mobility and not be in pain for their future memories.
Right now, they’re remodeling, trying to improve the home to get the most money out of it once the "For Sale" sign goes up. But they’re having a dispute with the contractor and this last-ditch effort to raise money to tackle medical debt has led them to yet another dead end.
It caused Marlena Wilzbach to break down in tears.
This family's story is not the only one like this.
Mary Spector runs the Civil Clinic at Southern Methodist University. For more than 20 years she and her students have helped families just like the Wilzbach’s who are forced into financial ruin.
Spector said many times it’s not even an accident or major illness that causes the debt.
"Insurance companies, medical providers, hospitals, doctors, labs, from one visit to the emergency room you can have four different creditors trying to collect their portion of the debt," said Spector.
She said many patients can’t keep track of all the different bills that come in. They don’t recognize them and while trying to figure it out it’s easy for one of those bills to get ignored.
"The most important thing to do is not ignore it," said Spector.
Medical debt is assigned interest and can grow every day it goes unpaid.
Eventually medical providers will give up on getting paid and they sell outstanding debt to debt collectors who buy it for a fraction of what is actually owed.
A debt collector can buy $1,000 in outstanding debt for just $10.
Not only can they still charge you the full amount, but they can add more interest and even take you to court.
Spector said the Texans dealing with that debt are terrified.
"They're worried to pick up the phone, they're worried to answer the door, they're worried to pick up the mail, they don't know what they're rights and responsibilities are and so they're fearful," said Spector.
Marlena Wilzbach shares some of those fears, but is trusting in her faith to help her family find a solution. For now, she struggles with each step.
A simple trip to the mailbox means back pain and even more medical bills for the doctors she’s seeing while they save for surgery.
"I was not willing to just watch my kids play Frisbee or kickball or four square or any of the things we like to do," said Wilzbach.
The family will move, find a new, cheaper place to live and still owe some $200,000.
The Wilzbach's are not alone, not in the least. Medical debt is one of the biggest complaints in the NBC Consumer Investigative Center every day.
NBC 5 is stepping in to help and is spending $20,000 to purchase $2 million in outstanding medical debt.
We bought the debt for pennies on the dollar, just like the debt collectors do. While we couldn't ask for the debt of specific families, like the Wilzbach's, we were able to buy it in bulk for 2,000 families who live in North Texas.
Later this week, those 2,000 North Texas families will receive letters notifying them that we are now their debt collector and that we've forgiven every single penny of what they owe.
As for the Wilzbach's contractor issue, NBC 5 Responds is trying to resolve that issue for them as well.
NBC 5 Responds will bring you continuing coverage of the Medical Debt Epidemic in the coming days to help you better understand how medical debt works and come up with a plan to tackle it in your family.