White Water moves slowly on picking up E. coli tab


James and Judy Shook are grateful that Scottish Rite Children's Medical Center has forgiven the couple's $267,922 bill for their daughter' s treatment for E. coli contamination last summer, but they still want to see the hospital paid by White Water park. "I just wish White Water would come on and pay everyone's medical bills," said Judy Shook, the mother of Jordan Shook, who contracted E. coli after a visit to White Water in Cobb County last June.

"How could they not want to do right by a 4-year-old child who got sick at their park?" One child died and 25 others were sickened after being infected by E. coli outbreaks at White Water. Public health officials believe the infections spread through dirty diapers in a wading pool. James Shook, a self-employed contractor, was self-insured, meaning he typically paid medical costs for his three family members out of his own pocket.

Ned Stancliff, senior vice president for White Water, said Monday that the gift from Scottish Rite has no bearing on whether White Water will pay medical costs for Jordan Shook. Stancliff would not discuss payments to the families of the children except to say it would be inaccurate to report that White Water had paid no medical bills. "In many cases, we've had successful resolutions," he said. White Water's lawyer, Billy Gunn, on Monday said he had offered to negotiate with any medical provider that pressured patients' families to pay. "I made that offer in writing," Gunn said. "But we're not in a position to start writing checks at this point of the litigation.

William Marler, the Seattle lawyer for the Shooks, said White Water has refused to pay bills for any of his five clients, including Atlanta Braves shortstop Walt Weiss and his wife, Terri, whose son, Brody, also was infected last June. "They (White Water) did a PR stunt saying they're sorry, but legally they're taking a firm stand, saying they're not responsible," Marler said. He said he does not intend to stop pressing White Water to pay Jordan's medical bills and to reimburse Scottish Rite. "This is a wonderful thing they did. I'm going to make sure they get paid back," Marler said.

Marler, who represented hundreds of children in a case against Jack-in-the-Box restaurants for an E. coli outbreak in 1996, said he and the parents have a responsibility to make sure the children' s long-term medical costs are paid. Marler, who is considering a run for the U.S. Senate, also sued Odwalla Juice Co. for selling apple juice contaminated with E. coli. Both companies paid medical bills for his clients upfront, he said. Gunn said there is no way to draw a fair comparison between those cases and the White Water case.

"There's a huge legal difference in selling food that you know has E. coli and running a water park where you don't know how the contamination occurred," he said. Jordan, the sickest of the children who survived last summer's outbreak, spent 22 days on dialysis. McCall Akin, 2, died last July. Jordan had been as critically ill as McCall, but for reasons her doctors still do not understand, Jordan began to improve in late July.

She was released from Scottish Rite Aug. 7 but continued physical therapy for paralysis due to her stroke for months. She still may not be ready to begin kindergarten in the fall, doctors have told Judy Shook. "You want your child to be as normal as possible, but there are just so many uncertainties," Judy Shook said. "You just want to hold her close and say, 'I am so, so, sorry. This will all be OK.' " Jordan is afraid to do many of the things she did before she became ill, said her mother, who has fears of her own. "She asked the other day if she could have a bathing suit this summer, " Judy Shook said. "I can't bring myself to look at one."

Stephan Quiriconi, vice president for finance at Egleston Scottish Rite Hospital, said he could not speak specifically about the Shook case, but that when the hospital writes off an account, "we write them off forever. We don't pursue." So far as the Shooks repaying the hospital, Quiriconi said the hospital would have to review policy on charity write-offs. "We never have had that happen. We'd have to look at that to see how we'd respond, " Quiriconi said. For the 1998 fiscal year, Scottish Rite wrote off $5 million in charity cases, as did Egleston, Quiriconi said. Egleston and Scottish Rite merged last fall.

Writing off a certain amount of charity cases, typically at least 3 percent, is required by state law for hospitals to be accredited, Quiriconi said. There is no particular formula the hospital uses to determine whether to excuse a debt, or how much.