David Zipprich, a Fort Worth businessman and grandfather, was forced out of retirement after a series of hospitalizations left him owing more than $200,000.
David Zipprich, a Fort Worth businessman and grandfather, was forced out of retirement after a series of hospitalizations left him owing more than $200,000. (Laura Buckman for KHN and NPR)

A Retiree Returns to Work After a Calamitous Year of Health Emergencies

Of the nation’s 20 most populous counties, none has a higher prevalence of medical debt than Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is located. Second is adjacent Dallas County, credit bureau data shows.

By Noam N. Levey

David Zipprich, 65, Fort Worth, Texas 

Approximate Medical Debt: More than $200,000 

Medical Issue: Diabetes and covid-19 

What Happened: David Zipprich, a Fort Worth businessman and grandfather, was forced out of retirement after a series of hospitalizations left him owing more than $200,000. 

Zipprich had spent a career in financial consulting. He owned a small bungalow in a historical neighborhood near the Fort Worth rail yards. His daughters, both teachers, and his four grandchildren lived nearby. He had health insurance and some savings, and he’d paid off his mortgage. 

In early 2020, though, Zipprich landed in the hospital. While he was driving, his blood sugar dropped precipitously, and he blacked out and crashed his car. 

Three months later, after he was diagnosed with diabetes, another complication sent him back to the hospital. In December 2020, covid-19 put him there again. “I look back at that year and feel lucky I even survived,” Zipprich said. 

Dallas-Fort Worth medical systems have been thriving. Though many are exempt from taxes as nonprofit institutions, several notched double-digit profit margins in recent years, outperforming many of the area’s Fortune 500 companies.
Dallas-Fort Worth medical systems have been thriving. Though many are exempt from taxes as nonprofit institutions, several notched double-digit profit margins in recent years, outperforming many of the area’s Fortune 500 companies.Unsplash

What’s Broken: Of the nation’s 20 most populous counties, none has a higher prevalence of medical debt than Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is located. Second is adjacent Dallas County, credit bureau data shows. 

Nevertheless, Dallas-Fort Worth medical systems have been thriving. Though many are exempt from taxes as nonprofit institutions, several notched double-digit profit margins in recent years, outperforming many of the area’s Fortune 500 companies. 

A KHN review of hospital finances in the country’s 306 hospital markets found that several of the most profitable markets also have some of the highest levels of patient debt. 

Overall, about a third of the 100 million adults in the U.S. with health care debt owe money for a hospitalization, according to a poll conducted by KFF for this project. About a quarter of those owe $10,000 or more. 

“The fact is, if you walk into a hospital today, chances are you are going to walk out with debt, even if you have insurance,” said Allison Sesso, chief executive of RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that buys debt from hospitals and debt collectors so patients won’t have to pay it. 

“The fact is, if you walk into a hospital today, chances are you are going to walk out with debt, even if you have insurance.”
llison Sesso, Chief Executive, RIP Medical Debt

Overall in Tarrant County, 27% of residents with credit reports have medical debt on their records, credit bureau data analyzed by KHN and the nonprofit Urban Institute shows. In Dallas County, it’s 22.5% 

What’s Left: Even with insurance, Zipprich was inundated with medical bills, debt notices, and calls from collectors. 

As he struggled to pay, his credit score plummeted below 600, and he had to refinance his home. “My stress was off the charts,” he said, sitting in his tidy living room with his Shih Tzu, Murphy. 

Last year, Zipprich returned to work, taking a job in New Jersey that required him to commute back and forth to Texas. He recently quit, citing the strain of so much travel. He’s job-hunting again. “I never thought this would happen to me,” he said. (HN/KHN)

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