SACRAMENTO, Calif. —A letter of sympathy should have arrived at the home of Gerald and Elizabeth Hawkins 10 days after their son Scott was beaten to death.
Instead, University of California Davis Medical Center officials were apologizing last week to the Hawkins family over a clerical error that instead sent them a $29,000 bill and a form letter suggesting their slain son was medically indigent.
Hospital officials continued to scrutinize how the error occurred when the 23-year-old California State University, Sacramento student was brought to the University of California, Davis emergency room Oct. 21 after being beaten by a roommate.
The hospital's chief executive officer, Ann Madden Rice, called the family last week to apologize. So did Ann Frankel, the medical center's assistant director of finance, who oversees the billing department.
"It's all they can do at this point.... It doesn't take away what we felt. There's no way a telephone apology could take that away," said Gerald Hawkins, the victim's father.
Despite the apology, a swirl of unanswered questions continued to trouble the Hawkins family.
Why, for example, did the hospital continue to classify the slain student as indigent when the hospital managed to track down a permanent address? "Why didn't they call to ask us if our son had insurance?" Gerald Hawkins asked.
Instead, a $29,000 bill arrived in Santa Clara, Calif., along with a form letter addressed "Dear Patient" intended to inform the student that emergency services provided by University of Davis would not be paid for by the county program for the medically indigent.
In fact, the slain student was not indigent but was fully insured by Kaiser Permanente.
The mistake brought further anguish to the Hawkins family.
"Why, in any civilized society, would a hospital send the parents of a murdered boy a bill and letter like this?" Gerald Hawkins asked.
Carole Gan, a spokeswoman for the medical center, called it an unfortunate mistake.
"It was a clerical error," Gan said.
"We have reviewed our system and strengthened our internal processes, which will prevent letters like these from going out improperly in the future," she said.
"Our hearts go out to the Hawkins family for the terrible grief and pain they are experiencing. We deeply regret that a clerical error caused them to receive a letter that brought even more distress," she said.
When the student died in the emergency room, his record should have been flagged and a hold put on billing activity, Gan said.
After 10 days, a letter of sympathy would have been sent, Gan said. It would have informed the family that the insurance company had been billed or "let them know that we did not have insurance information and to contact us."
"I can understand the confusion," said Mindi Russell, a senior chaplain with the Sacramento Area Law Enforcement Chaplaincy, a nonprofit group that aids victims of crime.
"We live in this world of computers, and mistakes still do happen," she said. "I'm saddened that there was a snafu. You don't want to harm the family any more."