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Is $9 million hospital charge a record?

Tampa General Hospital has filed a $9.2 million claim against the estate of a woman who died after spending five years in the hospital, according to Hillsborough County court documents.

In court documents, that's how much the hospital says is owed for the care of Tameka Jaqway Campbell. She died at age 29 two years ago of progressive demyelinating neuropathy, which occurs when the immune cells attack the body’s nerves.

It’s unclear whether the $9.2 million in hospital charges is a record. Health News Florida checked with the American Hospital Association, the Health Care Financial Management Association, and numerous others. No one knew anyone who keeps track.

"That would have to be the biggest bill I've heard of," said Alan Levine, a division president at the Naples-based hospital chain Health Management Associates.

"I've seen more than $1 million," he said. "But not 9 million."

Fort Myers hospital consultant Peter Young said, "A bill that large may well be in a league of its own and a Guinness Book of records bill!"

Could be. An online search at the Guinness Book of World Records offers no category for "largest hospital bill." Of course, Guinness is based in Britain, which has National Health Insurance. There, hospitals don't send whopping bills to patients or their survivors.

A spokeswoman for Guinness World Records said the organization will have to do a search to see if there's a related category for such an item.

Meanwhile, consultant Young said, without knowing any details, that the case is unusual. Hospital officials must believe there are resources against which a claim can be made, he said.

There aren't, said Campbell's mother Holly Bennett.

"If they think they're getting money from me they're crazy," she said. "Who's ever even heard of a bill that high?"

Bennett thinks the claim is punitive, to prevent her from filing a wrongful-death lawsuit against the hospital.

“They're trying to make me go away,” she said. “They're trying to cover up for the mistreatment of my daughter.”

Bennett has a YouTube channelwith videos that accuse the hospital of not feeding Campbell and of giving her too much morphine. The combination caused Campbell to drop to 37 pounds, Bennett says.

The videos show a young woman, presumably Tameka, lying in a hospital bed hooked up to tubes, including what appears to be a feeding tube.

Tampa General spokesman John Dunn said he can't comment on patient cases.

The hospital never sent an actual bill for its charges, Bennett said. Instead it filed the list of charges on its claim against the estate.

Guardianship records at the Hillsborough County Courthouse show that the court removed Bennett as her daughter’s health care surrogate and appointed a professional guardian. It’s unclear from the documents why Bennett was removed.

The attorney representing Tampa General said he could not comment. Bennett does not have an attorney.

But if she acquires one and pushes forward with a wrongful death suit, the parties will either haggle and settle out-of-court or a jury and judgment would decide how much money goes to the mother, the estate or the hospital, said South Florida attorney John Kelner.

Barry Dubinsky, a medical malpractice attorney in Coral Springs, said hospitals frequently file claims against the estate of a patient who has died and has unpaid bills.

“Technically, you have to file in case the estate gets funded, then you've got your hand in the pot,” he said of Tampa General. “It's business, it's all business. The hospital is just trying to get their money.”

--Reporter Brittany Davis can be reached at 954-239-8968 or by e-mail.  Editor Carol Gentry can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.