On Sept. 9, Lori Handerhan was rushed from her cardiologist’s office in Weymouth to South Shore Hospital’s emergency room next door with a heart rate so low doctors feared she would die.

Handerhan, 62, was treated for a condition known as “complete heart block,” when the electrical impulses that control the beating of the heart are disrupted.

During five days at South Shore Hospital, Handerhan says she received excellent care, including surgery to implant a pacemaker to regulate her heart.

But in the months that followed, as she tried to get her life back on track, Handerhan faced another frightening experience: How to pay tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills on an annual family income of about $100,000.

Handerhan put long hours into trying to navigate the notoriously complex worlds of private health care insurance, hospital billing, and government medical assistance programs.

Stressed and bewildered by what she found, she contacted me for help late last month.

Handerhan said South Shore Hospital initially seemed sympathetic to her financial plight. It slashed almost $10,000 off her $32,193 bill.

But that left a balance of $22,811. And on Jan. 10, the hospital warned Handerhan that if her debt remained unpaid, it could be turned over to a collection agency.

Q. Didn’t Sovereign Nations disclose its limitations on coverage?

A. I found the plan documents Handerhan shared with me to be confusing and contradictory. Based on what I read, Sovereign provided Handerhan with little or no coverage for hospitalizations.

No consumer should buy health care insurance that lacks coverage for hospitalization. It’s fundamental. Double check to make sure you understand what you are getting.

Two good resources are the Health Connector, the state’s well-regarded online insurance marketplace, and Health Care for All, a patient advocacy organization. People shopping for insurance should begin with the Health Connector. But make sure you are on the right website.

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