For one patient, paying for cancer treatments was not realistic while living on a $400 disability check each month. The patient did not qualify for Medicaid and had nowhere to turn except an increasingly busy financial counselor’s office at St. Mary’s Hospital.

While the unemployment numbers rise and the economic picture gets worse around the country, the number of uninsured people also climbs — even in our own Southern Maryland backyard.

St. Mary’s County’s poverty rate estimates in 2007 were 7.7 percent, up from the previous year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An estimated 13.4 percent of people under age 65 in St. Mary’s County are uninsured, according to 2005 Census data.

A Rockefeller Foundation and Time magazine survey from 2008 indicated that 25 percent of Americans are sacrificing healthcare basics and the same percentage have not seen a doctor in the past year due to high costs.

However, St. Mary’s Hospital officials warn against foregoing medical care due to cost concerns because letting a problem persist may have dire consequences in the future and may cost even more to treat later on.

To meet the increasing needs, St. Mary’s Hospital has a policy to serve all your healthcare needs regardless of your ability to pay. There are signs posted throughout the hospital conveying the message and discussing the hospital’s Payment Assistance Program.

The program helps low-income individuals based on the Federal Poverty Guidelines who do not have health insurance or are underinsured and do not qualify for other state or federal payment assistance programs. The program offers full or partial assistance, meaning the individual may not pay for care or may be set up with a payment plan to pay for reduced medical bills.

The patient must complete the program’s application and include a federal 1040 tax form; three current paycheck stubs; or a letter from Social Security Disability Insurance/Supplemental Security Income to indicate a monthly or annual income. If the person is not currently working, he or she must submit a letter of circumstance.  

For the cancer patient living on a $400 disability check each month, Denise Costanzo, financial assistance counselor at St. Mary’s Hospital, helped the patient continue treatment without worry or financial pressures while also respecting the person’s privacy.

“It is a good program; we help a lot of people,” Costanzo said.

The assistance program helps individuals at the hospital’s main campus in Leonardtown, the Express Care facility in Charlotte Hall and those seeking care through the Mobile Outreach Center. The hospital provided more than $3 million in free or reduced-cost care in fiscal 2008, which ran from July 1, 2007 until June 30, 2008.  

The hospital saw a 68 percent increase in individuals utilizing the Payment Assistance Plan from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2007. Costanzo said over the last six months she has seen an increasing number of individuals who fall within the middle-class designation requesting help.

She reviews every application and counsels applicants to find out what money is allocated to bills and other necessities versus the person’s monthly income.  For many people, it may come down to paying rent or paying for health insurance and most choose rent.

The program emphasizes working with the patient to maximize a positive solution, in a confidential, empathetic environment. It requires participation from the patient to verify information, but for those who go through the complete process, there is almost always a positive outcome.

“I’m here to serve them and help them find solutions,” Costanzo said. “I don’t want to ruin somebody’s credit