Sick and struggling to pay, 100 million people in the U.S. live with medical debt

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/06/16/1104679219/medical-bills-debt-investigation

Elizabeth Woodruff drained her retirement account and took on three jobs after she and her husband were sued for nearly $10,000 by the New York hospital where his infected leg was amputated.

Ariane Buck, a young father in Arizona who sells health insurance, couldn’t make an appointment with his doctor for a dangerous intestinal infection because the office said he had outstanding bills.

Allyson Ward and her husband loaded up credit cards, borrowed from relatives, and delayed repaying student loans after the premature birth of their twins left them with $80,000 in debt. Ward, a nurse practitioner, took on extra nursing shifts, working days and nights.

“I wanted to be a mom,” she said. “But we had to have the money.”

The three are among more than 100 million people in America ― including 41% of adults ― beset by a health care system that is systematically pushing patients into debt on a mass scale, an investigation by KHN and NPR shows.

The investigation reveals a problem that, despite new attention from the White House and Congress, is far more pervasive than previously reported. That is because much of the debt that patients accrue is hidden as credit card balances, loans from family, or payment plans to hospitals and other medical providers.

To calculate the true extent and burden of this debt, the KHN-NPR investigation draws on a nationwide poll conducted by KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) for this project. The poll was designed to capture not just bills patients couldn’t afford, but other borrowing used to pay for health care as well. New analyses of credit bureau, hospital billing, and credit card data by the Urban Institute and other research partners also inform the project. And KHN and NPR reporters conducted hundreds of interviews with patients, physicians, health industry leaders, consumer advocates, and researchers.

The picture is bleak.

Where medical debt hits the hardest in the U.S.

The share of people with medical or dental bills in collections varies widely from one county to another

In the past five years, more than half of U.S. adults report they’ve gone into debt because of medical or dental bills, the KFF poll found.

A quarter of adults with health care debt owe more than $5,000. And about 1 in 5 with any amount of debt said they don’t expect to ever pay it off.

“Debt is no longer just a bug in our system. It is one of the main products,” said Dr. Rishi Manchanda, who has worked with low-income patients in California for more than a decade and served on the board of the nonprofit RIP Medical Debt. “We have a health care system almost perfectly designed to create debt.”

The burden is forcing families to cut spending on food and other essentials. Millions are being driven from their homes or into bankruptcy, the poll found.

Medical debt is piling additional hardships on people with cancer and other chronic illnesses. Debt levels in U.S. counties with the highest rates of disease can be three or four times what they are in the healthiest counties, according to an Urban Institute analysis.

The debt is also deepening racial disparities.

And it is preventing Americans from saving for retirement, investing in their children’s educations, or laying the traditional building blocks for a secure future, such as borrowing for college or buying a home. Debt from health care is nearly twice as common for adults under 30 as for those 65 and older, the KFF poll found.

Perhaps most perversely, medical debt is blocking patients from care.

About 1 in 7 people with debt said they’ve been denied access to a hospital, doctor, or other provider because of unpaid bills, according to the poll. An even greater share ― about two-thirds ― have put off care they or a family member need because of cost.

“It’s barbaric,” said Dr. Miriam Atkins, a Georgia oncologist who, like many physicians, said she’s had patients give up treatment for fear of debt.

Patient debt is piling up despite the landmark 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The law expanded insurance coverage to tens of millions of Americans. Yet it also ushered in years of robust profits for the medical industry, which has steadily raised prices over the past decade.

Hospitals recorded their most profitable year on record in 2019, notching an aggregate profit margin of 7.6%, according to the federal Medicare Payment Advisory Committee. Many hospitals thrived even through the pandemic.

But for many Americans, the law failed to live up to its promise of more affordable care. Instead, they’ve faced thousands of dollars in bills as health insurers shifted costs onto patients through higher deductibles.

Now, a highly lucrative industry is capitalizing on patients’ inability to pay. Hospitals and other medical providers are pushing millions into credit cards and other loans. These stick patients with high interest rates while generating profits for the lenders that top 29%, according to research firm IBISWorld.

Patient debt is also sustaining a shadowy collections business fed by hospitals ― including public university systems and nonprofits granted tax breaks to serve their communities ― that sell debt in private deals to collections companies that, in turn, pursue patients.

“People are getting harassed at all hours of the day. Many come to us with no idea where the debt came from,” said Eric Zell, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. “It seems to be an epidemic.”

In debt to hospitals, credit cards, and relatives

America’s debt crisis is driven by a simple reality: Half of U.S. adults don’t have the cash to cover an unexpected $500 health care bill, according to the KFF poll.

As a result, many simply don’t pay. The flood of unpaid bills has made medical debt the most common form of debt on consumer credit records.

As of last year, 58% of debts recorded in collections were for a medical bill, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That’s nearly four times as many debts attributable to telecom bills, the next most common form of debt on credit records.

But the medical debt on credit reports represents only a fraction of the money that Americans owe for health care, the KHN-NPR investigation shows.

  • About 50 million adults ― roughly 1 in 5 ― are paying off bills for their own care or a family member’s through an installment plan with a hospital or other provider, the KFF poll found. Such debt arrangements don’t appear on credit reports unless a patient stops paying.
  • One in 10 owe money to a friend or family member who covered their medical or dental bills, another form of borrowing not customarily measured.
  • Still more debt ends up on credit cards, as patients charge their bills and run up balances, piling high interest rates on top of what they owe for care. About 1 in 6 adults are paying off a medical or dental bill they put on a card.

How much medical debt Americans have in total is hard to know because so much isn’t recorded. But an earlier KFF analysis of federal data estimated that collective medical debt totaled at least $195 billion in 2019, larger than the economy of Greece.

The credit card balances, which also aren’t recorded as medical debt, can be substantial, according to an analysis of credit card records by the JPMorgan Chase Institute. The financial research group found that the typical cardholder’s monthly balance jumped 34% after a major medical expense.

Monthly balances then declined as people paid down their bills. But for a year, they remained about 10% above where they had been before the medical expense. Balances for a comparable group of cardholders without a major medical expense stayed relatively flat.

It’s unclear how much of the higher balances ended up as debt, as the institute’s data doesn’t distinguish between cardholders who pay off their balance every month from those who don’t. But about half of cardholders nationwide carry a balance on their cards, which usually adds interest and fees.

Bearing the burden of debts large and small

For many Americans, debt from medical or dental care may be relatively low. About a third owe less than $1,000, the KFF poll found.

Even small debts can take a toll.

Edy Adams, a 31-year-old medical student in Texas, was pursued by debt collectors for years for a medical exam she received after she was sexually assaulted.

Adams had recently graduated from college and was living in Chicago.

Police never found the perpetrator. But two years after the attack, Adams started getting calls from collectors saying she owed $130.58.

Illinois law prohibits billing victims for such tests. But no matter how many times Adams explained the error, the calls kept coming, each forcing her, she said, to relive the worst day of her life.

Sometimes when the collectors called, Adams would break down in tears on the phone. “I was frantic,” she recalled. “I was being haunted by this zombie bill. I couldn’t make it stop.”

Health care debt can also be catastrophic.

Sherrie Foy, 63, and her husband, Michael, saw their carefully planned retirement upended when Foy’s colon had to be removed.

After Michael retired from Consolidated Edison in New York, the couple moved to rural southwestern Virginia. Sherrie had the space to care for rescued horses.

The couple had diligently saved. And they had retiree health insurance through Con Edison. But Sherrie’s surgery led to numerous complications, months in the hospital, and medical bills that passed the $1 million cap on the couple’s health plan.

When Foy couldn’t pay more than $775,000 she owed the University of Virginia Health System, the medical center sued, a once common practice that the university said it has reined in. The couple declared bankruptcy.

Illinois law prohibits billing victims for such tests. But no matter how many times Adams explained the error, the calls kept coming, each forcing her, she said, to relive the worst day of her life.

Sometimes when the collectors called, Adams would break down in tears on the phone. “I was frantic,” she recalled. “I was being haunted by this zombie bill. I couldn’t make it stop.”

Nearly half of Americans in households making more than $90,000 a year have incurred health care debt in the past five years, the KFF poll found.

Women are more likely than men to be in debt. And parents more commonly have health care debt than people without children.

But the crisis has landed hardest on the poorest and uninsured.

Debt is most widespread in the South, an analysis of credit records by the Urban Institute shows. Insurance protections there are weaker, many of the states haven’t expanded Medicaid, and chronic illness is more widespread.

Nationwide, according to the poll, Black adults are 50% more likely and Hispanic adults 35% more likely than whites to owe money for care. (Hispanics can be of any race or combination of races.)

In some places, such as the nation’s capital, disparities are even larger, Urban Institute data shows: Medical debt in Washington, D.C.’s predominantly minority neighborhoods is nearly four times as common as in white neighborhoods.

In minority communities already struggling with fewer educational and economic opportunities, the debt can be crippling, said Joseph Leitmann-Santa Cruz, chief executive of Capital Area Asset Builders, a nonprofit that provides financial counseling to low-income Washington residents. “It’s like having another arm tied behind their backs,” he said.

Medical debt can also keep young people from building savings, finishing their education, or getting a job. One analysis of credit data found that debt from health care peaks for typical Americans in their late 20s and early 30s, then declines as they get older.

Cheyenne Dantona’s medical debt derailed her career before it began.

Dantona, 31, was diagnosed with blood cancer while in college. The cancer went into remission, but when Dantona changed health plans, she was hit with thousands of dollars of medical bills because one of her primary providers was out of network.

She enrolled in a medical credit card, only to get stuck paying even more in interest. Other bills went to collections, dragging down her credit score. Dantona still dreams of working with injured and orphaned wild animals, but she’s been forced to move back in with her mother outside Minneapolis.

“She’s been trapped,” said Dantona’s sister, Desiree. “Her life is on pause.”

The strongest predictor of medical debt

Desiree Dantona said the debt has also made her sister hesitant to seek care to ensure her cancer remains in remission.

Medical providers say this is one of the most pernicious effects of America’s debt crisis, keeping the sick away from care and piling toxic stress on patients when they are most vulnerable.

The financial strain can slow patients’ recovery and even increase their chances of death, cancer researchers have found.

Yet the link between sickness and debt is a defining feature of American health care, according to the Urban Institute, which analyzed credit records and other demographic data on poverty, race, and health status.

U.S. counties with the highest share of residents with multiple chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, also tend to have the most medical debt. That makes illness a stronger predictor of medical debt than either poverty or insurance.

In the 100 U.S. counties with the highest levels of chronic disease, nearly a quarter of adults have medical debt on their credit records, compared with fewer than 1 in 10 in the healthiest counties.

The problem is so pervasive that even many physicians and business leaders concede debt has become a black mark on American health care.

There is no reason in this country that people should have medical debt that destroys them,” said George Halvorson, former chief executive of Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest integrated medical system and health plan. KP has a relatively generous financial assistance policy but does sometimes sue patients. (The health system is not affiliated with KHN.)

Halvorson cited the growth of high-deductible health insurance as a key driver of the debt crisis. “People are getting bankrupted when they get care,” he said, “even if they have insurance.”

What the federal government can do

The Affordable Care Act bolstered financial protections for millions of Americans, not only increasing health coverage but also setting insurance standards that were supposed to limit how much patients must pay out of their own pockets.

By some measures, the law worked, research shows. In California, there was an 11% decline in the monthly use of payday loans after the state expanded coverage through the law.

But the law’s caps on out-of-pocket costs have proven too high for most Americans. Federal regulations allow out-of-pocket maximums on individual plans up to $8,700.

Additionally, the law did not stop the growth of high-deductible plans, which have become standard over the past decade. That has forced growing numbers of Americans to pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets before their coverage kicks in.

Last year the average annual deductible for a single worker with job-based coverage topped $1,400, almost four times what it was in 2006, according to an annual employer survey by KFF. Family deductibles can top $10,000.

While health plans are requiring patients to pay more, hospitals, drugmakers, and other medical providers are raising prices.

From 2012 to 2016, prices for medical care surged 16%, almost four times the rate of overall inflation, a report by the nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute found.

For many Americans, the combination of high prices and high out-of-pocket costs almost inevitably means debt. The KFF poll found that 6 in 10 working-age adults with coverage have gone into debt getting care in the past five years, a rate only slightly lower than the uninsured.

Even Medicare coverage can leave patients on the hook for thousands of dollars in charges for drugs and treatment, studies show.

About a third of seniors have owed money for care, the poll found. And 37% of these said they or someone in their household have been forced to cut spending on food, clothing, or other essentials because of what they owe; 12% said they’ve taken on extra work.

The growing toll of the debt has sparked new interest from elected officials, regulators, and industry leaders.

In March, following warnings from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the major credit reporting companies said they would remove medical debts under $500 and those that had been repaid from consumer credit reports.

In April, the Biden administration announced a new CFPB crackdown on debt collectors and an initiative by the Department of Health and Human Services to gather more information on how hospitals provide financial aid.

The actions were applauded by patient advocates. However, the changes likely won’t address the root causes of this national crisis.

“The No. 1 reason, and the No. 2, 3, and 4 reasons, that people go into medical debt is they don’t have the money,” said Alan Cohen, a co-founder of insurer Centivo who has worked in health benefits for more than 30 years. “It’s not complicated.”

Buck, the father in Arizona who was denied care, has seen this firsthand while selling Medicare plans to seniors. “I’ve had old people crying on the phone with me,” he said. “It’s horrifying.”

Now 30, Buck faces his own struggles. He recovered from the intestinal infection, but after being forced to go to a hospital emergency room, he was hit with thousands of dollars in medical bills.

More piled on when Buck’s wife landed in an emergency room for ovarian cysts.

Today the Bucks, who have three children, estimate they owe more than $50,000, including medical bills they put on credit cards that they can’t pay off.

“We’ve all had to cut back on everything,” Buck said. The kids wear hand-me-downs. They scrimp on school supplies and rely on family for Christmas gifts. A dinner out for chili is an extravagance.

“It pains me when my kids ask to go somewhere, and I can’t,” Buck said. “I feel as if I’ve failed as a parent.”

The couple is preparing to file for bankruptcy.

About This Project

Diagnosis: Debt is a reporting partnership between KHN and NPR exploring the scale, impact, and causes of medical debt in America.

The series draws on the “KFF Health Care Debt Survey,” a poll designed and analyzed by public opinion researchers at KFF in collaboration with KHN journalists and editors. The survey was conducted Feb. 25 through March 20, 2022, online and via telephone, in English and Spanish, among a nationally representative sample of 2,375 U.S. adults, including 1,292 adults with current health care debt and 382 adults who had health care debt in the past five years. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample and 3 percentage points for those with current debt. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher.

Additional research was conducted by the Urban Institute, which analyzed credit bureau and other demographic data on poverty, race, and health status to explore where medical debt is concentrated in the U.S. and what factors are associated with high debt levels.

The JPMorgan Chase Institute analyzed records from a sampling of Chase credit card holders to look at how customers’ balances may be affected by major medical expenses.

Reporters from KHN and NPR also conducted hundreds of interviews with patients across the country; spoke with physicians, health industry leaders, consumer advocates, debt lawyers, and researchers; and reviewed scores of studies and surveys about medical debt.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

Credit monitoring companies are removing most medical debt from consumer credit reports

Spurred by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s investigation into how credit companies report medical debt, TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian—the country’s three largest credit bureaus, who keep records on 200M Americans—are revising how they report medical debt.

As a result, the companies could eliminate up to 70 percent of medical debt from consumers’ credit reports. Starting in July, medical debts paid after going to collections will no longer appear on credit reports, and unpaid debts won’t be added until a year after being sent to collections (instead of six months, per current policy). And beginning in 2023, medical debts of less than $500 will also be excluded from credit reports altogether.

The Gist:The poorest and sickest patients have been disproportionately saddled with the highest levels of medical debt. In 2017, 19 percent of US households carried medical debt, including many with private insurance. 

While these changes will help mitigate the impact of medical debt for some, they aren’t a fix to the larger underlying problem of rising healthcare costs and access to adequate health insurance coverage. 

America’s giant medical debt

Americans owe at least $195 billion of medical debt, despite 90% of the population having some kind of health coverage, according to new research from the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Why it matters: People are spending down their savings and skimping on food, clothing and household items to pay their medical bills, Adriel writes.

About 16 million people, or 6% of U.S. adults, owe more than $1,000 in medical bills, and 3 million people owe more than $10,000.

  • The financial burden falls disproportionately on people with disabilities, those in generally poor health, Black Americans and people living in the South or in non-Medicaid expansion states, per the research.

Go deeper: 16% of privately-insured adults say they would need to take on credit card debt to meet an unexpected $400 medical expense, while 7% would borrow money from friends or family, per the research, which focused on adults who reported having more than $250 in unpaid bills as of December 2019. 

It’s not yet clear how much the pandemic and the recession factor into the picture, in part because many people delayed or went without care. There also was a small shift from employer-based coverage to Medicaid, which has little or no cost-sharing.

  • While the new federal ban on surprise billing limits exposure to some unexpected expenses, it only covers a fraction of the large medical bills many Americans face, the researchers say.

America’s major medical debt problem

https://mailchi.mp/d953ea288786/newsletter031821-4639518?e=ad91541e82

Concerns Mount Over Looming Surge in Bankruptcy as COVID Medical Debt Soars

Medical debt can be a crushing burden for families, and it is a major problem in the United States. The nonprofit RIP Medical Debt says it’s wiped out debt for 2.7 million patients since 2014, totalling more than $4.5 billion. One of the most famous health policy studies ever conducted — the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment — found that having Medicaid coverage reduced a person’s likelihood of having an unpaid medical bill sent to collection by 25%. Now a study published last month in JAMA offers new evidence on the relationship between Medicaid and medical debt, and the scale of the country’s medical debt problem.

Using a subset of credit reports from one major U.S. credit agency for every year between 2009 and 2020, researchers Raymond Kluender, Neale Mahoney, Francis Wong and Wesley Yin looked at the total amount of medical debt and new medical debt each year. They found that while both measures of medical debt have decreased almost every year since 2014, nearly 1 in 5 Americans were under collections for medical debt as of early 2020. They also found that since 2014, medical debt has been the largest source of debt for Americans, surpassing all other types of debt — credit cards, personal loans, utilities and phone bills — combined. And the medical debt was not evenly distributed around the country. Approximately, 1 in 4 individuals in the South were under collection for medical debt in 2020, but only 1 in 10 in the Northeast.

To assess the impact of Medicaid coverage on medical debt, Kluender and colleagues compared the total amount of new debt accrued by people living in states that expanded Medicaid and those that have not between 2009 and 2020, allowing them to confirm that any trends they identified didn’t pre-date Medicaid expansion in 2014. They found that between 2013 and 2020 the average amount of new medical debt decreased 34 percentage points more in states that expanded in 2014 compared to non-expansion states, and the drops were most prominent in the lowest income zip codes. The analysis can’t prove a causal relationship between medical debt and Medicaid expansion, but interestingly, the authors found no statistically significant difference in nonmedical debt between expansion and non-expansion states. This lack of an effect on nonmedical debt supports the association between Medicaid and reductions in medical debt.

The article does have limitations: It doesn’t include debts paid on a credit card or through payment plans; it doesn’t reflect the impact of COVID-19; and it can’t account for unobservable changes in policy or circumstance that might have coincided with Medicaid expansion and impacted medical debt. But it does add evidence to support the value of Medicaid coverage — a particularly timely finding, with more than 11 million people joining Medicaid since the start of the pandemic and Democrats in Congress looking to cover the more than 2 million people in the so-called coverage gap in the 12 non-expansion states.

Americans’ medical debt tops $140B, study finds

What Are The Best Ways to Clear Medical Debt?

Collection agencies held $140 billion in unpaid medical debt in 2020, according to a study published July 20 in JAMA.

Researchers examined a nationally representative panel of consumer credit reports between January 2009 and June 2020. Below are four other notable findings from their report.

  1. An estimated 17.8 percent of Americans owed medical debt in June 2020. The average amount owed was $429.
  2. Over the time period studied, the amount of medical debt became progressively more concentrated in states that don’t participate in the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion program.
  3. Between 2013 and 2020, states that expanded Medicaid in 2014 experienced a decline in the average flow of medical debt that was 34 percentage points greater than the average medical debt flow in states that didn’t expand Medicaid.
  4. In the states that expanded Medicaid, the gap in the average medical debt flow between the lowest and highest ZIP code income levels decreased by $145, while the gap increased by $218 in states that did not expand Medicaid.

Relying on one nonprofit to relieve the debts owed to another

https://mailchi.mp/bade80e9bbb7/the-weekly-gist-june-18-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

American Hospital Association stays mum on debt collection practices |  BenefitsPRO
Ballad Health, a not-for-profit health system operating in Virginia and Tennessee, announced this week that it had reached an agreement with RIP Medical Debt, a charity that uses donations to relieve debt created by healthcare bills, to pay off $287M of outstanding debt owed by its patients.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the purchase will eliminate the debt of 82,000 low-income patients, many of whom qualified for Ballad’s charity care program but did not take advantage of it. The terms of the purchase were not disclosed, but RIP Medical Debt, which says it has relieved over $4.5B in medical debt nationally, typically pays between one and 1.25 percent of the owed amount for recent debt, and as little as 0.03 percent for older debt. That’s similar to what typical debt-purchasing businesses pay. But unlike those businesses, however, RIP Medical Debt says its debt eradication service has no tax consequences for recipients, effectively wiping away large sums that patients might have owed for years.

Since its creation as the result of a 2018 merger, Ballad has faced a mandate to increase the financial aid it provides to low-income patients, but has still come under criticism for aggressive collection practices, including the use of lawsuits against patients who owe the system. The deal with RIP Medical Debt is intended to reduce the amount of debt outstanding—as Ballad CEO Alan Levine told the Journal, “We’re wiping the slate clean.”

As a recent analysis by Axios and Johns Hopkins University showed, most nonprofit hospital systems have tried to reduce aggressive collections in recent years, with just 10 hospitals accounting for 97 percent of court actions against patients between 2018 and 2020. While it’s shocking to hear of a private charity having to step in to relieve patients of crippling medical debt in our nation’s $3.6T healthcare industry, absent larger structural solutions to the broken reimbursement system, it’s at least heartening to know that such services are available. But it’s a Band-Aid solution—more radical treatment remains undelivered.

Memphis hospital CEOs discuss policies on debt collection after patient lawsuits draw scrutiny

https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/2019/12/05/medical-debt-memphis-hospital-patients-sued/2611018001/

Dr. Reginald Coopwood, CEO of Regional One Health, on Feb. 5, 2016.

Representing more than half of the hospitals in Shelby County, the CEOs of four local health care organizations convened at the University of Memphis Tuesday for a panel on “successfully leading change” in the industry.

The gathering took place amid a growing conversation on medical debt — the cause of more than 58 percent of bankruptcies in the United States, according to the American Journal of Public Health. 

Communities across the countries have recently seen individuals and faith-based organizations launch fundraising initiatives to erase millions in medical expenses as part of a burgeoning movement to buy medical debt for the sole purpose of erasing it.

Memphis has also been at the fore of the conversation in recent months, with a pair of investigations by MLK50 and ProPublica revealing an aggressive system of suing patients involving wage garnishments, interest charges and court fees.

That reporting has since prompted a wave of debt reduction and forgiveness for thousands who were being sued by Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and Southeastern Emergency Physicians, a private equity-owned firm that staffs Baptist Memorial Health Care’s four local emergency rooms.

‘We have to be a profitable business’

At the Tuesday panel, organized by the professional association Mid-South Health Care Executives, the discussion touched on workplace harassment, the impending automation of health care jobs, and diversity.

The CEOs of Methodist Le Bonheur and Baptist Memorial also addressed medical debt as did their fellow panelists.

Dr. Reginald Coopwood, CEO of Regional One Health, the county hospital, said his organization was compelled to reassess its policies as a result of the recent scrutiny surrounding debt collection, though he defended the practice of suing patients in general.

“We send people through processes of collection,” Coopwood said of the public hospital.

“We have a great passion to deliver great care to whoever walks into our door. The flip side of that is … if everybody cannot pay their bills, we can’t buy $100 million record systems and we can’t buy technology that the community as a whole wants,” Coopwood said. “So we have policies to collect whatever is collectible from individuals.”

“That’s what a business needs to do,” he said.

According to General Sessions Court data, analyzed by MLK50 and ProPublica and shared with The Commercial Appeal, those hospitals and a physicians staffing firm, sued more than 2,500 patients in the first six months of the year, between January 1 and June 30:

  • Baptist Memorial Hospital, 486 lawsuits
  • Methodist Le Bonheur, 622 lawsuits
  • Regional One Health, 161 lawsuits
  • Southeastern Emergency Physicians, 1,292 lawsuits

“At the end of the day, we’re businesses, and in order to stay in business, we have to be able — in order to take care of those that are uninsured — we have to be a profitable business,” Coopwood said.

Sally Deitch, CEO of St. Francis Hospitals in Memphis, said the amount of charity care hospitals give back to communities is rarely seen, and, meanwhile, “most of these hospitals are living under their margins of actually being able to say ‘We are financially solid and stable and ready to make investments in new technology.'”

In a Memphis Business Journal review of nonprofit tax filings, Coopwood, Methodist Le Bonheur CEO Michael Ugwueke and Baptist Memorial Health Care CEO Jason Little are listed among the five highest paid nonprofit executives in the metro area, earning between $874,493 and $1,300,954 in 2018. Deitch was appointed to her position in October, after the Memphis Business Journal’s compensation review.

‘No one is perfect’

In the Methodist Le Bonheur system, MLK50 and ProPublica’s investigation found the nonprofit hospital’s practice of taking patients to court, through its in-house collection agency, had entrapped some of its own workers in a cycle of wage garnishments, interest and debt — while they were being paid less than a living wage.

Ugwueke, president of Methodist Le Bonheur’s hospitals in Shelby County, said his organization has gone “above and beyond the issues that were raised.”

The hospital, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, announced in July it would cease suing its employees and would raise the hospital network’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Methodist Le Bonheur also said it would institute a revamped financial assistance policy to ensure no one making less than 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines would be sued for debt collection in the future. For the approximately 6,500 patients who were in the process of being sued, the hospital also committed to forgiving or reducing their debts.

“As part of our process, we have made additional changes and accommodations,” Ugwueke said. “No one is perfect. I don’t think it’s anyone’s intention to do anything to harm patients.”

He added that he thinks other institutions have a role to play in serving the needs of low-income and poor communities.

“Memphis is a very challenging community. Health care organizations are not going to be the only ones solving the problems,” he said.

Deitch said no one seeking emergency care would ever be turned away from any hospital. Beyond that, she said she considered hospitals to be participants in helping their communities but not a deciding factor.

“When you start to think through the cost to the system and the burden to the system — at a certain point, it can’t all be the responsibility of a hospital,” she said.

Charity care

Little said he  thinks hospitals should address problems with affordability.

“We still need change in health care because it’s expensive. … Seventy-five percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck,” Little said, “and nobody sets money aside and plans to need a transplant. So that’s a challenge for all Americans and all Memphians.”

“And it’s a challenge that I’m really bullish on my colleagues up here continuing to address,” Little said, “because I think we’ve gotten really good at caring for our communities, particularly those in the greatest of need.”

For every dollar spent on expenses, Little said, Baptist Memorial spends 21 cents of it on charity care.

But that financial assistance hasn’t always been accessible to emergency-room patients, MLK50 and ProPublica reported in an investigation into Southeastern Emergency Physicians. The staffing firm contracts with doctors to treat emergency room patients in four of Baptist’s five hospitals in the region.

Southeastern filed nearly 1,300 lawsuits in the first half of 2019, according to MLK50 and ProPublica’s analysis of General Sessions Court data — more lawsuits than Regional One, Baptist Memorial and Methodist Le Bonheur combined.

But by the end of the year, in response to the MLK50 and ProPublica investigation, the firm’s parent company, TeamHealth, said it promote financial assistance program participation and would no longer pursue its active lawsuits — or sue any patients again.