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Developing a Suitable Response

What started out as one article about hospitals that file lawsuits against their former patients with unpaid medical debts has turned into a national phenomenon, as more and more mainstream media outlets turn their spotlights onto the healthcare networks in their markets. A running tally of the areas that have seen articles published include:

* Memphis [https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/nonprofit-hospital-makes-millions-owns-collection-agency-and-relentlessly-sues-poor]

* Glens Falls, N.Y. [https://poststar.com/news/local/glens-falls-hospital-takes-patients-to-court-over-billing/article_55ed6d88-62b9-5c97-9819-5811e5082fe3.html]

* Fredericksburg, Va. [https://www.fredericksburg.com/news/local/mary-washington-hospital-suspends-policy-of-suing-patients-following-american/article_526d34d5-e374-545f-8568-0c66ba0734e5.html]

* Baltimore, Md. [https://www.baltimoresun.com/health/bs-hs-hopkins-sues-patients-20190516-story.html]

* Virginia [https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/uva-has-ruined-us-health-system-sues-thousands-of-patients-seizing-paychecks-and-putting-liens-on-homes/2019/09/09/5eb23306-c807-11e9-be05-f76ac4ec618c_story.html]

* Oklahoma [https://www.enidnews.com/oklahoma/oklahoma-hospitals-sue-thousands-each-year-over-unpaid-medical-bills/article_ff382c58-b9e4-11e9-b658-530193959070.html]

If you’re looking for one article that offers a fairly comprehensive summary of this new trend, you can find it here: https://www.propublica.org/article/thousands-of-poor-patients-face-lawsuits-from-nonprofit-hospitals-that-trap-them-in-debt. Top administrators in Washington, D.C., have even said the practices uncovered by the reports have led to calls for the federal government to take control over the nation’s healthcare system.

Any healthcare network or medical facility that files lawsuits against individuals with unpaid debts needs to be ready for a phone call from their local newspaper or television station, asking questions about why they are suing people who can’t afford to pay their bills.

There is nothing legally wrong with hospitals filing lawsuits against former patients who did not pay their bills. But in the court of public opinion, doing so can be made to look like a heartless corporation, even a non-profit hospital, attacking someone who had an emergency and now has to choose between buying food for his or her family or paying the hospital bill.

Healthcare companies need to have a plan in place to deal with this situation, should it ever arise. In most of the cases, the hospitals that were profiled subsequently announced changes to their policies, some going as far as to announce they will no longer file lawsuits against individuals with unpaid debts or raising the income thresholds to make charity care more widely available to individuals who either do not have insurance or are likely to walk out of a hospital with a debt.

Hospitals and healthcare providers that are using third-party collection agencies or collection law firms especially need to have a conversation with those third parties to coordinate a response should an inquiry ever be made. Collection agencies can be used to receiving these types of calls and may have good insights that can be shared as a response is developed, as well. As with all collection efforts, empathy and understanding are key. Many of the reports have illustrated the lengths that healthcare companies will go to work with individuals to avoid lawsuits. Those efforts need to be highlighted.

Take a page from how others have handled this situation and be approachable and understanding. Newspapers and TV stations do not have to be the only copycats out there.

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