Binta Niang dreams of becoming a midwife and returning to her native Mali to help women. But her dream is blocked by a credit-killing debt for — of all things — an uninsured visit to an emergency room.
Niang’s trip to Swedish Medical Center’s Mill Creek emergency room in 2012 cost more than $8,000. When the Shoreline resident failed to pay, Swedish sent the debt to collection.
The bad debt has played havoc with Niang’s finances. It prevented her from refinancing a car loan with an interest rate of 24.9 percent. And it is complicating her desire to get a conventional student loan, enroll at Bastyr University and pursue her dream.
“It makes me afraid that when I apply for my student loan that I might have a big headache,” she said.
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Feeling desperate, the 25-year-old Niang asked for a free financial makeover from the Puget Sound Chapter of the Financial Planning Association. The chapter connected Niang with Dana Twight, an independent certified financial planner in Seattle.
“Does one visit to an emergency room halt her dream of going to school?” Twight asked. The financial planner is determined to make sure the answer is no.
“She’s made mistakes,” Twight said, “but she’s worked really hard.”
Niang immigrated to Seattle in 2006 to be with her brother and to study medicine. She enrolled at North Seattle College to polish her English skills and eventually earned an associate degree in science in 2013.
She got a job as an in-home caregiver that pays about $2,200 a month, although the pay and the hours are variable. To supplement her income, Niang earns about $300 a month as a mystery shopper.
She became increasingly determined to enroll at Bastyr and become a certified professional midwife. Unfortunately, Niang’s limited assets and mounting debts got in the way.
The series of events that led her to the emergency room began with a stomach ache. “It was a sharp pain, like someone was stabbing me,” Niang recalled.
Medics urged her to go to a hospital, but at the time Niang was uninsured and without a regular doctor. Friends drove her to the emergency room.
Doctors ordered tests, including a CT scan, but found nothing. They prescribed pain medication and sent her home. Whatever it was, she recovered.
When the hospital bills arrived, Niang didn’t open the envelopes. “I know I did really bad on that one,” she said. Eventually, the hospital started collection on an outstanding balance of at least $8,000.
Adding to Niang’s woes was her auto loan. She needed a reliable car for her jobs and opted to buy a 1999 Toyota Camry with money borrowed from an online lender. Only later did Niang realize that most of her monthly payment of $192 went to interest. She still owes $2,860.
One of Twight’s first moves was to introduce Niang to a local — and less costly — banking service by having her open an account at BECU. The credit union pays a higher interest rate on the first $500 in savings, Twight said, and the BECU Foundation awards student scholarships.
Next, Twight tried to refinance Niang’s car loan, only to learn that the option was blocked by her outstanding hospital bill. Instead, Niang will retire the car loan early by making payments twice a month.
Niang also filed a claim in a class-action lawsuit that accused Swedish of overcharging uninsured patients for emergency-room treatment.
A proposed settlement, in King County Superior Court, could trim her hospital bill.
Meanwhile, under Twight’s guidance, Niang is trimming her expenses. She canceled a tennis-club membership that cost $85 a month and a credit-reporting service that cost $20 a month.
She’s moving to a new apartment that will save her between $50 and $60 a month in utility payments.
Niang no longer rents movies; instead, she checks them out at the library. She stopped paying to have her hair braided and shops more often with coupons.
“It all adds up,” Niang said.
Twight and Niang are still working out the details for how to pay for Niang’s studies at Bastyr. Tuition, fees and books — not including living expenses — could add up to about $25,000 a year.
The two women are looking at a combination of student loans, grants and part-time jobs.
Niang said she learned a lot from Twight about finances. But Twight’s biggest lesson, Niang said, was showing her how to take charge and solve her money problems.
“What she did was help in investing in my future,” Niang said.
George Erb is a Seattle freelancer.