U.S. citizen billed $1.7 million by government for life-saving burn treatment: ‘Completely hopeless’

Author: Anna Werner / CBS
Published: Updated:
Alexis Hernandez, who faces a $1.7 million bill from the government after time recovering from burns in 2019. Credit: Hernandez family

An American citizen found himself with a hefty medical bill totaling nearly $2 million from the U.S. government, after he spent seven months at a Texas military hospital recovering from life-threatening injuries.

“I never expected, never in my life to live through something like this,” Puerto Rican resident Alexis Hernandez told CBS News’ Anna Werner. “I never imagined that I will have to live through such pain.”

In January of 2019, Hernandez arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico to begin studying to be a doctor. He was 23 at the time.

“I’ve been working really hard all my life to make this real,” he said, adding it was his dream to study medicine.

Just two days after he arrived, Hernandez said he went to turn on a boiler to get hot water for his shower. Then the explosion happened.

“The flames were all over the apartment and the building. And I had to run through the flames in the apartment looking for a way out. In the end, I almost lost my life,” he recounted.

Hernandez’s recovery consisted of 19 surgeries and hundreds of hours of physical therapy. Credit: Hernandez family

Rescuers saved him and took him to a Mexican hospital, but his severe burns required specialized care. As a U.S. citizen, Hernandez was then flown to one of America’s premier burn centers — the U.S. Army’s Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio, Texas.

His physical therapy assistant Kelly Brown said the burns were over “a huge percentage” of Hernandez’s body.

“There was only a few places that weren’t burned,” he said.

Even with medication, he was likely in great pain, Brown said. One of the only places not burned were the soles of his feet.

Hernandez’s recovery consisted of 19 surgeries and hundreds of hours of physical therapy.

“I start from zero again, I learn how to walk, how to eat, how to breathe, how to see, how to dress myself, how to do everything again,” he said.

Brown praised Hernandez as a “very determined young man.”

“He’s been through more pain than any human should have to deal with,” he said. “And he fought through it, he always wanted to get better, and he would always give it his best effort and then some.”

“He’s been through more pain than any human should have to deal with,” Hernandez’s physical therapy assistant Kelly Brown said. Hernandez family

Hernandez said the day he flew home to Puerto Rico seven months later was “amazing.”

“To see how happy they were, it was a really special moment for me,” he said, visibly emotional.

But when he got home, Hernandez found his health insurance company — insurance provided through his father’s job as a policeman — had denied payment for his medical expenses.

His father, Jamie Hernandez, said the company now refused to pay the claim, telling him it was because the accident occurred in Mexico.

The U.S. government then sent him a bill claiming he owed $1.7 million to the U.S. Treasury — an amount they even suggested he could pay by check or by phone.

Hernandez said he felt “completely hopeless” when he saw the letter.

His local representative sent letters to the Treasury and Defense Departments, as well as then-Attorney General William Barr, asking that the debt be forgiven. There has been no response.

Now Hernandez is trying to move on, despite owing that much money.

Asked what keeps him determined and driving forward, Hernandez said he felt like he received a “second chance” at life.

“I feel fortunate. I am grateful that I can see the light of the day, every day,” he said. “Not everyone has a second chance. I’m not going to waste it.”

He wants to use that second chance, he said, to help others. Hernandez plans to go back to medical school and finally become a doctor, if the debt does not stand in the way.

“I am working so hard to go back to school. Maybe with this, I’m not going to be able to go back,” he worried.

Hernandez’s insurance company, First Medical, would not comment on his case despite multiple inquiries from CBS News. The U.S. Departments of Treasury, Defense and Justice also did not comment.

Alexis Hernandez, meanwhile, had two more surgeries this year and faces more months of physical rehabilitation.

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