Hospital lawsuits for unpaid bills rose by 37% in Wisconsin from 2001-2018: 6 things to know

An analysis of Wisconsin court records from 2001-2018 found that hospital lawsuits for unpaid medical bills increased by 37 percent and disproportionately affected Black patients and poor patients in rural communities, according to a Dec. 6 Health Affairs essay.

The researchers found their data in court records from the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access system. They also created a list of Wisconsin hospitals from the American Hospital Association Annual Survey and found cases where an AHA hospital was the plaintiff. They then made a database of this information.

Wisconsin did not expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.

Six things to know:

1. Black patients and poor patients in rural communities are more likely to be sued over medical debt. Per 1,000 Black residents, there were 1.86 lawsuits in 2018, compared to 1.32 per 1,000 white residents.

2. Wage garnishments from hospital litigation also increased by 27 percent in Wisconsin during the study period, with more than half of hospital lawsuits leading to wage garnishments in 2018.

3. While critical access hospitals receive big subsidies from the federal government and are a major resource for rural residents, they're also more likely to sue than other kinds of hospitals. Nonprofit hospitals are also more likely to sue than for-profit hospitals.

4. Additionally, hospitals that had higher shares of Medicare discharges and lower shares of commercial discharges were found to be more likely to sue patients.

5. The 10 percent of hospitals that sued the most accounted for 40.7 percent of lawsuits.

6. Many large hospitals paused lawsuits amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is not certain if hospitals will continue this.

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