Bay Area couple in car crash refuses medical help, gets big bill anyway

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- If you get into a car crash, you may or may not need medical help. But victims may get treatment whether they ask for it or not. A Bay Area couple got into what they thought was a minor crash, and refused medical services at the scene. Months later, they received a surprise in the mail.

"It was actually my birthday that weekend,'' recalls San Ramon resident Kevin Lee. His girlfriend, San Francisco resident Renee Wong, was driving them to his birthday party in the East Bay.

The traffic on the Bay Bridge was unusually heavy for a Sunday afternoon - moving at a stop-and-go pace -- when the car in front of them stopped suddenly .

"That's when the impact happened,'' Wong recalls.

"I was like, holy crap we're in an accident in the middle of the bridge,'' Lee said.

At first the crash didn't seem serious. "We were both pretty fine. There was no blood, no like, injuries,'' Wong says.

But then they saw the damage - the front hood crumpled up to the windshield, the airbags shriveled.

"We were like, oh wow,'' Renee recalls. "It looked pretty smushed."

Soon came the sirens, and the ambulance.

"They asked us, like, if we needed any medical attention,'' Wong says.

"My response was 'no.' " Lee says.

They both declined medical help, but paramedics said they should wait inside the ambulance. "They said it was the safest place to be on a freeway,'' Lee recalls. "And I agree with that. "

Inside the ambulance, a paramedic asked if they'd roll up their sleeves.

"They said, ' OK, we're going to need to take your blood pressure, vitals,' '' Wong recalls

"I jokingly asked if there was going to be a charge for this to be administered, and he said 'no.' " Lee says.

Later, they headed to the party, the shock of the accident wearing off - until the next one.

"I opened the mailbox, and saw a letter addressed to me,'' Lee says.

Months after the crash, Kevin and Renee each received a bill from the San Francisco Fire Department. It said they owed $454 apiece for paramedic services on the day of that accident.

"I mean, I was livid,'' Lee says. "I didn't expect the charge."

"It was unfair because clearly we refused help,'' Wong adds.

She said the $454 fee also seemed excessive, since the paramedics did little more than take their blood pressure and heart rate.

They both protested the charges with the fire department, but say they did not get a response. They contacted ABC7 and we asked the fire department about the couple's complaint.

A spokesperson explained the emergency protocols, saying accident victims often are dazed or in shock, and don't realize they've been injured. Internal bleeding and concussions may not be readily apparent. Sometimes injuries go unnoticed and worsen later. Some could be potentially fatal if left unaddressed, the spokesperson said.

Paramedics try to evaluate victims especially when vehicle damage is severe, since that indicates the impact of the crash was also severe.

The spokesperson said that, as soon as paramedics read their vital signs, it creates a medical record, which in turn automatically generates a bill for services. However, the fire department did grant their appeal and waive the fees for Wong and Lee, saying "There was an assessment done and a medical record created, but the assessment was minimal."

A big relief for Lee and Wong.

A final note: The fire department spokesperson warns that if you are in an accident, it may be best to get checked at the scene. Don't automatically assume you're OK. Any exam will generate a bill - but as in this case, you can dispute the charges and the city does consider waiving fees for low-income patients.

Click here for a look at more stories by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

Written and produced by Renee Koury
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