Leukemia Patient Says Insurance Was Canceled Over 26-Cent Payment Shortfall

PHOTO: Sergio Branco

A New Jersey father who was laid off from his job while battling leukemia had his health insurance benefits canceled after a check sent as payment was mistakenly 26 cents short, his wife said.

Sergio Branco, 33, thought he might be having a heart attack in January when he started experiencing chest pains. The father of two, who also has a stepchild, was driving trucks for a New Jersey-based waste management company when he went to the hospital to get checked out. A bone marrow test confirmed he had acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

"He went to pick up my 2-year-old and felt pain in his chest. He has high blood pressure," his wife, Mara Branco, told ABCNews.com. "We found out his Y-cells are extremely high. They ran a test two days later and found AML."

Branco, who lives with his family in Edison, N.J., took a three-month leave from work while undergoing chemotherapy at St. Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. He was eventually sent to undergo treatment at the cancer ward at New Brunswick's Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

"[During the chemotherapy] there were stages. Some were better than others," his cousin, Sandy Marujo, told ABCNews.com. "It was different. Sometimes he'd be tired, nauseous. He's been in and out since January."

After rounds of chemo, doctors treating Branco began the process of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing in order to match a bone marrow donor. They were able to find a 9-point match, according to Mara Branco.

The Brancos set a bone marrow transplant for Sergio Branco for Aug. 16, and he continued his treatment.

But on April 30, after his three-month leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act was up, he was laid off by his employer, Russell Reid.

Despite the end of his employment, Branco and his wife made arrangements to extend his insurance through the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act (COBRA).

COBRA allows employees who have been laid off to get temporary continuation of health coverage at group rates.

On May 1, the Brancos received a letter stating that they had 60 days to elect coverage under COBRA, and that payment would be due no later than 45 days after the date of election, according to Mara Branco.

She told ABCNews.com that she contacted Paychex, the company handling the extension of benefits, and discovered that the monthly rate to extend her husband's insurance would be $518.26 per month.

Towards the end of May, she said, she filled out the requisite paperwork and mailed a check to Paychex for the first month of coverage. But she mistakenly sent a check for $518 -- 26 cents less than the billed amount.

Still, Paychex cashed the check on June 11, she said. In early July, while continuing her husband's treatment and anticipating his August transplant, the Brancos got some shocking news.

"The hospital said he didn't have insurance since May 5," Mara Branco said. "So I called Paychex, and they told me they canceled my policy for non-payment. They said that on my check I was 26 cents short, so they didn't apply it to my account. But they had cashed my check on June 11.

"I asked if they sent a letter saying I was 26 cents short. They said, 'No, we don't do that,'" she said.

Mara Branco said Paychex also told her the company hadn't received payment for June, but she claimed that she never received a bill.

Soon, the couple received a hospital bill for $70,000.

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