July 28, 2011— -- In 2004, at age 24, Tameka Jaqway Campbell was admitted to Tampa General Hospital, and five years later, she died from progressive demyelinating neuropathy, an incurable illness that destroys the body's nerves. She left behind a $9.2 million bill.
Experts contacted by ABC News said they had never heard of a claim or bill as high as this one. And even though the hospital charges would likely be refigured to about $2 million, Holly Bennett, Tameka's mother, said she would refuse to pay them.
"I'm not gonna pay your bill," Bennett told ABC's Tampa affiliate in response to the claim against her daughter's estate. "I'm not gonna even worry about it. I'm not gonna lose sleep because this is frivolous."
According to the American Hospital Association's Hospital Statistics report in 2009, medical costs in the state of Florida were 24.4 percent of the actual hospital charges.
In that case, the bill would then drop to about $2.25 million -- still hardly a pittance.
"To many, including myself, how hospital bills are calculated is very mysterious and totally nontransparent," said Eleanor Kinney, Hall Render professor of law at Indiana University.
It is unclear whether Tameka held private or government insurance.
"The likely outcome is some sort of settlement divided between the patient's family and the hospital," said Dr. A. Mark Fendrick, a professor of internal medicine and health management and policy at the University of Michigan.
Bennett said she did not receive an itemized hospital bill that would have contained the services and charges for the five years of treatment. She believes the claim is intended to "make her go away" and prevent her from filing a medical malpractice suit against the hospital.
Tameka's mother has created several YouTube videos to speak out against what she believes was the wrongful death of her daughter. In the videos, she accuses doctors of refusing to feed Tameka and giving her too much morphine.
The story gets more complicated. Court documents show the state removed Tameka from her mother's care and appointed a professional guardian to replace her. It is not clear why Tameka was taken from her mother's watch.
A hospital spokesman refused to comment on either the bill or Bennett's medical malpractice claims.
"This is tragic," said Alan Sager, a professor of health policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health. "A patient apparently received costly care that might have made her more comfortable -- and might have slowed the progression of her illness, but these interventions apparently could do little more than slow a steep decline."
Along with the issue of the bill itself, experts said it called attention to several other health care problems.
"There is a real need to improve the end-of-life care in the United States," said Kinney. "People need to be educated that more care at the end-of-life is not necessarily better care. Sometimes unsophisticated people who do not understand the limits of medicine and the financial realities of hospitals can have unreasonable expectations."
Hospital Charges $9.2 Million in Unpaid Charges
Sager said it's time for people to think about the type of care. Because resources are finite and pathology is "remorseless," people must decide whether low-value and high-cost care should be provided to patients.
"Every family makes those kinds of decisions every year in their own family budgets," said Sager. "The challenge is to empower skilled clinicians to spend our money as carefully as possible, to do as much good as possible, and for those clinicians to weigh the evidence about what works and what's good for the patient, not their own financial well-being.
"I think that the aim of health care might be something like … confidence that every American will get needed, competent, and timely care without having to worry about the bill when we are sick, and without having to ever worry about losing our insurance coverage," said Sager. "That's what we can get for $2.7 trillion a year."