Jeannette Parker, 44, thought she was doing the right thing by feeding a stray cat, but she ended up with a nearly $49,000 medical bill and an endless supply of hassle.

Parker was just outside Florida’s Everglades National Park on Sept. 28 when she saw the cat wandering along a roadway. Being a state Fish and Wildlife biologist, and having some tuna available in her car, she enticed the little kitty over, whereupon it bit her finger.

Parker told Julie Appleby of American University Radio’s WAMU that, “It broke my skin with its teeth.”

When any mammal bites a human and there is no history of rabies vaccination, that’s a big problem.

Parker cleaned the wound and headed toward her home in the Florida Keys. Her training had covered the subject of rabies so she drove to the local health department. It was closed. Then she headed to the emergency room at Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, Fla.

Part of the Baptist Health South Florida system, Mariners is a 25-bed critical access facility. It is a faith-based nonprofit chain with eight hospitals and other facilities in south Florida.

Parker said it took about two hours and she got a couple of injections and an antibiotic. She said she never spoke to a physician and went home satisfied with the service. Sometime later, the bills came in.

Parker is insured through the American Postal Workers Union because her husband works for the federal government at Everglades National Park. The total bill was $48,512, with $46,422 of that total for one preventive medication.

The treatment provided included wound examination, injection of the first in a series of rabies vaccinations, and an injection of 12 milliliters of rabies immune globulin.

Immune globulin is an antibody that provides protection from the virus until the vaccine kicks in and causes the patient to build their own immune response for rabies. Veterinarians and other professionals who work with random source animals routinely get vaccinated for rabies. The reason is, once one develops rabies symptoms, the disease is essentially 100 percent fatal.

The bottom line is Parker did the right thing. She absolutely needed to be treated, especially given the circumstances of where and how she was bitten.

The more than $46,000 for the rabies immune globulin was a sticking point, though. WAMU contacted Charles Rupprecht, a former technical adviser to the World Health Organization. He ran the rabies program for the Centers for Disease Control for more than 20 years. He was astounded by the cost and called it unheard of.

Now most stories like this seem to stop here and a red-faced hospital billing clerk makes a correction and all is better. But not here.

Parker went by the hospital and got an itemized copy of her bill to make sure the charges were correct. The hospital personnel confirmed it was correct.

WAMU chased down the source of rabies immune globulin. Three companies make it from the blood plasma of people vaccinated for rabies. The FDA confirmed there was no shortage. The cost to wholesalers was quoted at $361.26 per milliliter, or about $4,335 for the dose Parker got.

But wholesalers mark it up and sell it to distributors who mark it up and sell it to hospitals, etc., etc. Mariners’ price stood.

Parker’s husband’s health plan ended up paying $34,618 toward her total ER bill, including $33,423 for the immune globulin alone. She’s appealing and may have the whole thing covered as an accidental injury by definition.

“My funeral would have been cheaper,” she told WAMU.


Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email cpowell@vetmed.wsu.edu.

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