As community health centers and medical facilities move to resume normal operations, we’re starting to see more hospitals suing their patients for unpaid medical expenses. This comes at a time when millions of Americans have lost their jobs and employer-sponsored health insurance, leaving them few options to pay for medical care.
However, these healthcare facilities say it’s their obligation to collect fees so they can continue to serve the public at large, but many patients are now caught in the middle of lengthy lawsuits that could propel them further toward financial ruin.
America’s Medical Debt Problem
Hospitals were known for their aggressive legal tactics before the pandemic. These facilities would often pass on their debt to debt collectors, who would then take the issue into their own hands. This enables the hospital to focus on existing operations.
Studies show 79 million Americans currently have medical bill debt or related problems. Among Americans with medical bills in collection:
- 15% say they owe $10,000 or more
- 33% say they also have a student loan
- 17% say they also owe money to a payday lender
- 58% say they have been contacted by a collection agency
These statistics were gathered before the pandemic, so it’s likely that the problem has only gotten worse in recent months.
Debt Collection Resumes
According to Axios, nearly half of the roughly two dozen Community Health Systems hospitals in Florida, Texas, and Arizona have sued patients since the pandemic began.
Community health centers cater to low-income Americans and those without insurance. These individuals also tend to be more susceptible to the coronavirus. Many of them may be out of work or working in high-risk situations, such as immigrants, agricultural workers, and food processors.
Some facilities have filed dozens of suits against their patients in recent months. These suits range from just $1,000 to over $100,000 in unpaid medical expenses.
Such is the case with Blair Smiley in Arizona. This is the third time she’s been sued over the last two years. In fact, she wasn’t even aware of the latest lawsuit when reporters from Axios reached out to her for comment. She works for a funeral home, her husband is a disabled veteran, and their daughter, now ten years old, recently went on a feeding tube.
She says she doesn’t know what type of care the latest suit involves or how much they’re asking for, but it’s a bill she can’t afford to pay anytime soon.
Richard Piper went through a similar situation when he sought treatment earlier this year in Fort Worth, Texas. His hours have been cut at work, but the hospital is suing him for $35,000 in unpaid medical care, plus court and legal fees with interest.
Piper is living off just over $500 a week, as he writes in a letter to the hospital. He was under their care for 4 or 5 days during the pandemic, even though he didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford treatment. He asked to leave the facility every day while he was there, but the doctors wouldn’t allow it.
Now he believes the hospital is guilty of price gouging. As he said in a recent interview, “If I had money, and I could afford a lawyer, I would counter-sue the hospital for price gouging. When they want to charge you $19 for a Band-Aid, that’s ridiculous.”
Community Health Networks Fight Back
Many facilities offer free legal and financial services to help patients make sense of how much they owe, but that’s not always a solution. Many people simply don’t have the option of forgoing care or getting an extra job to pay these bills.
In their defense, these facilities also say that suing their patients is the only way to get them to respond. As one facility commented, “Sometimes legal action is the only path through which patients will engage in a conversation about the amount they owe for healthcare services that have already been provided.”
Medical debt collection remains a thorny subject in the healthcare industry, but the pandemic has further complicated the situation. We can’t expect CHCs to operate for free, but everyone deserves access to healthcare without going broke in the process. Make sure your patients understand how much they owe and why, before sending them on their way.