Negative media coverage is curtailing medical debt lawsuits against patients, study says

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Hospitals have sued fewer patients over unpaid medical debt since the media brought the practice to the public's attention in 2019, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open.

The study was published Aug. 23, two years after a previous JAMA study reported how Virginia hospitals had been suing patients and garnering their wages over unpaid medical bills.

The 2019 study looked at 135 Virginia hospitals. It identified they had pursued 20,054 warrant-in-debt lawsuits and 9,232 wage garnishment cases in 2017, with 36 percent of the hospitals conducting garnishment. Many of the patients who faced lawsuits or garnishments from Virginia hospitals worked at low-wage jobs.

More than 80 news stories cited the study. Since the original study was published, more media outlets and research institutes have covered hospitals' debt collection efforts, often exposing the practice as predatory and contrary to a hospital's mission.

The new study found that the number of medical debt lawsuits filed by Virginia hospitals against patients decreased by 59 percent, with a 55 percent decline in warrant-in-debt lawsuits and a 66 percent decline in wage garnishments. It also found that 11 Virginia hospitals banned the practice altogether.

"The findings of this study suggest that hospitals can — and do — change their billing practices because of public awareness," the researchers wrote. "The adaptability of hospitals suggests the value of a feedback model of public accountability."

The researchers suggested a ratings system for hospital billing quality be established in the future, as it could lead to a "more sustained and transparent approach" for addressing hospital billing operations.

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