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Two Orlando hospitals won't bill survivors of Pulse nightclub shooting

Jerry Perez, center, puts a rose on a photo of Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, one of the victims killed in the shootings at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, on July 12. Perez and friend Christopher Johnson, left, came to pay their respects at the club where a shooter killed 49 people. Perez attended drama school with Jean Carlos Mendez Perez in Puerto Rico. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times] 

Published Aug. 25, 2016

The Orlando hospitals that treated dozens of people injured in the Pulse nightclub shooting said Wednesday that they would not bill any of these survivors.

One hospital said it would not bill for any treatment it provided Pulse victims, while Orlando Regional Medical Center, the hospital that treated most of the survivors, said it would seek payment from other resources such as insurance plans and a victims fund set up by city officials. Authorities there said they expect the "total unreimbursed costs" could top $5 million.

"Orlando Health has not sent any hospital or medical bills directly to Pulse patients and we don't intend to pursue reimbursement of medical costs from them," Orlando Health, the not-for-profit health-care network that operates Orlando Regional, said in a statement Wednesday night.

The majority of people wounded at Pulse who survived the massacre were taken to Orlando Regional, a trauma center half a mile from the club. A gunman stormed Pulse and opened fire in the early hours of June 12, an attack that ultimately left 49 people dead. The gunman, who went on to pledge loyalty to the Islamic State, held hostages in the club's bathrooms for hours before dying in a shootout with police.

Authorities are still investigating the handling of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, including how police responded as the event transitioned into a lengthy hostage standoff. In an interview last month, Orlando police Chief John Mina said officials do not know how many of the victims who were alive during the standoff later died in the bathrooms or how many had survivable gunshot wounds.

Nine people wounded at the club died at Orlando Regional. After the shooting, doctors there recounted patients who arrived "by the truckload," riddled with bullets and gunshot wounds. The hospital treated 44 people, some of whom would remain in critical condition for days.

The Orlando Sentinel first reported the news Wednesday about the decisions by both hospitals not to bill survivors.

Florida Hospital, which treated 12 survivors of the shooting, would not bill for any of its services in this case, a hospital spokeswoman said.

"It was incredible to see how our community came together in the wake of the senseless Pulse shooting," Daryl Tol, president and chief executive of Florida Hospital and Adventist Health System's Central Florida Region, said in a statement. "We hope this gesture can add to the heart and goodwill that defines Orlando."

Orlando Health said that its officials were "exploring numerous options to help the victims of the Pulse nightclub tragedy address immediate and ongoing medical costs." In addition to private insurance and the victims fund, these options will include state and federal funds, disability insurance, charity care and a state program that compensates crime victims.

Survivors welcomed the news.

"I was so worried because I can't afford any of that," said Mario Lopez, 34, who was visiting from Miami when he went to the club after a friend's housewarming party.

"I just went out for a fun night with friends. No one expected this to happen. My life was turned upside down, and then I had to worry about how I was going to pay back the hospital."

Lopez, who is uninsured, was grazed by a bullet and had fragments explode into his left side. After he was hit, he fell and split his elbow on a shard of glass. His seven-hour hospital visit left him with a new nightmare: a potential $20,000-bill.

"It's a huge relief" to know he won't have to pay, he told the Orlando Sentinel.

At Orlando Health, spokeswoman Kena Lewis said the hospital would work with victims who will need future surgeries as a result of the shootings.

"We can't predict the future needs of these patients, their financial situations or what the state or federal governments may require us to do for charity policies," she said. "While we can't assume the answer is free care forever, we will use our very generous charity and financial assistance policies to assess the best way" to help.

As it is, the hospital chain is expecting to shoulder at least $5 million in unreimbursed care for the Pulse victims, many of whom had extensive injuries, Lewis said. Florida Hospital officials said the bills there totaled more than $525,000.

As for Lopez, his physical wounds are healing, he said, but the emotional trauma still feels raw at times.

"It's tough," he said. "Each day, I have my moments."

Authorities continue to investigate the shooting at Pulse. The FBI director and the U.S. attorney general have described it as both a hate crime and an act of terrorism.

The Justice Department, at the Orlando Police Department's request, is reviewing the law enforcement response to Pulse. Similar reviews have been carried out after mass shootings at movie theaters, government installations and schools, and are used to help inform how law enforcement agencies try to prepare to react to future attacks.

Information from the Washington Post and Orlando Sentinel was used in this report.

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