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Ambulance Delayed While Patient Hit Up for $5 Co-Pay

NEW YORK -- As she lay on an ambulance gurney, ready to be taken to the hospital after suffering a heart attack, 76-year-old Barbara Antonelli saw a receptionist from her Sunnyside doctor's office running toward her.

Mrs. Antonelli figured she had left something behind or that the employee simply wanted to wish her well.

Instead, the stricken woman was asked for her $5 co-pay, and the ambulance was held up while she scoured her purse for the money.

"Stupid me, I gave her the five dollars," said Mrs. Antonelli, while resting yesterday at her Dongan Hills home. "This was an emergency ... and they asked for a lousy $5. They could have billed me. I never thought they would have the audacity to ask."

Mrs. Antonelli visited the Staten Island Physician Practice (SIPP) on Jan. 14 to make sure she was OK after having chest pains the day before. After an electrocardiogram showed that she had suffered a heart attack, Dr. Jonathan Okum ordered an ambulance from Richmond University Medical Center so that Mrs. Antonelli could undergo further testing at the hospital.

Dr. Jack D'Angelo, associate medical director at SIPP, called the incident "ugly" and said he would investigate to find out who had asked for the co-pay and why.

"This is not an issue of policy, it was an issue of poor judgment by the receptionist," he said when reached yesterday. "We will take the appropriate steps to assist this employee and the remainder of our staff to learn from this event and assure that all of our patients are treated like we would like our parents to be treated."

Without being specific, Dr. D'Angelo said the receptionist responsible likely will be reprimanded.

Workers at SIPP were appalled when they learned of what had happened to Mrs. Antonelli, calling it "insane" and "crazy."

"It's not our policy," said Sally Cohen, center administrator for SIPP, who was surprised that someone would worry about payment on the spot instead of billing the patient after the fact. She said she will investigate what happened and address the situation with the employee. "We're all in this for medicine. If it is an incident, I will take care of that."

Mrs. Antonelli's son, Thomas, rushed to RUMC after she was brought there and was stunned when he heard the story from his mother.

"She's on a stretcher and they're worrying about five dollars," he said, pointing out that if the receptionist was acting against policy, some of the other workers could have stopped her on her way out the door. "It's insane. When I go there [over the weekend], I'm definitely going to go in and find out who that woman was."

In the end, Mrs. Antonelli -- a widow with a history of heart problems and who had quadruple bypass surgery 10 years ago -- was fine. She has since visited her cardiologist and has a sonogram scheduled for today to identify any complications. Her doctor increased her heart medication and she's feeling better.

Despite the treatment, Mrs. Antonelli doesn't have immediate plans to switch doctors -- Dr. Okum had nothing to do with the situation and didn't even know it happened, she said.

"It's was just a shame that had to happen," Thomas Antonelli said.

Glenn Nyback is a news reporter for the Advance. He may be reached at nyback@siadvance.com

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