ESSEX, Vt. (The (Burlington, Vt.) Free Press) - A mother who has been hospitalized against her will for five weeks following a murder-suicide involving her teenage son and her estranged husband says she and her insurance company are being billed for her unwanted treatment.
"I am not ill; I am simply a mother who is grieving the tragic loss of her young son," Christina Schumacher told the Burlington Free Press this week. "No mother should ever have to experience this loss."
Schumacher's situation is an example of a broader concern, said state Rep. Anne Donahue, a longtime advocate for improving treatment in Vermont for the mentally ill.
"People are billed as if they are there voluntarily," Donahue said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It's a bill you didn't ask for and you didn't want."
Schumacher's son, Gunnar, 14, an Essex High School freshman, was strangled by his father, Ludwig "Sonny" Schumacher Jr., 49, who later took his life by hanging, Essex police have said. The bodies were found Dec. 18 at a rented apartment at 8 Carmichael St. in Essex, where Sonny Schumacher lived after the couple separated in July.
Christina Schumacher, 48, was admitted against her will to the secure psych ward at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington the day after the bodies were found. She and friends dispute her need to be confined and said the hospitalization was done without a judge's review.
The involuntary admission, which initially was designated for 72 hours, was ordered by a doctor because mental-health workers believed she "poses a danger to herself and others," court records show.
Schumacher said she has received strong community support since she told her story to the Free Press earlier in January.
A Vermont Superior Court judge this month is expected to review the clinical order placing Schumacher in the hospital.
Schumacher, who worked at GE Healthcare for about 23 years, said she is trying to work with Fletcher Allen regarding the bill for her five-week-long involuntary hospitalization because it is unneeded.
"Prayer, music, yoga and meditation are my medication," she said.
A question of cost
Donahue, R-Northfield, said she is concerned about patients' being billed when they never sought treatment.
"If they have insurance, they bill the insurance company," Donahue said about hospitals and the treatment team. "All you have to do is be a clinically approved admission. The fact that it is involuntary doesn't change that."
Fletcher Allen spokesman Mike Noble said he could not discuss a specific case, but in general terms he said the cost of hospitalization often is picked up by Medicaid.
He said there are various options, which include that "covered persons might have commercial insurance, Medicare, Medicaid or some combination."
Asked about the possible range of daily charges a patient might face during an involuntary hospitalization, Noble said he would attempt to find somebody with an answer. As of 6:40 p.m., he said he had received no response.
In an email, Noble wrote: "At Fletcher Allen, this cost is usually borne by the patient's insurance, if there is insurance. Some funding, in some cases, is provided by the Department of Mental Health."
He continued: "For those without insurance, Fletcher Allen absorbs the cost. No clinical decision depends on insurance or payment," Noble said.
So who is to pay?
"It is a really good question," Donahue said.
She said a 2009 state report showed the split for the billing for all mental-health patients - voluntary and involuntary admissions.
Medicaid covered 37 percent, and Medicaid handled 29 percent, Donahue said. A patient's insurance company was billed for 23 percent of the cases, and 11 percent have no insurance.
She said she did not have the breakout for those admitted against their will.
Against her will
Schumacher, who had been seeing a psychiatrist for a couple of weeks, arrived for a previously scheduled appointment Dec. 19, the day after the bodies of her estranged husband and her son were found.
It was before her appointment at the University Health Center that her doctor had University of Vermont police on standby to take her into custody if she did not admit herself.
Schumacher declined, so she was detained by police. A UVM police report showed that the officers had to wait for several hours because mental-health staff lacked the proper paperwork to have her legally transported to Fletcher Allen.
"My daughter and I need each other during this grieving process. I love my daughter. I miss her," Schumacher said, referring to Gunnar's older sister. "This is my journey, and in no way is it up to anyone to judge how I mourn."
Fletcher Allen is unable to confirm that Schumacher remains at the hospital. The hospital has told the Burlington Free Press that the newspaper is no longer allowed to visit Schumacher, but phone calls are permitted.
Schumacher contacted the Free Press on Dec. 30 to report she was being held against her will. She asked the newspaper to investigate and continues to speak freely about her ordeal.
Meanwhile, Essex police are continuing to investigate the two deaths, Chief Brad LaRose said Tuesday afternoon.
Investigators are still waiting for the production of computer and cellphone records, LaRose said, and toxicology examinations are being conducted for Gunnar and his father.