Northwell's 2,500 lawsuits against patients made headlines; hours later, they were rescinded

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New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell Health will rescind thousands of lawsuits filed against patients for unpaid medical bills amid the pandemic, the system told Becker's Hospital Review. 

Vice President of Public Relations Barbara Osborn told Becker's that during the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, Northwell eased some patient collection activities and put a six-month pause from April through September on legal filings to collect unpaid debts. Northwell said the pause occurred at all but one hospital, which was the result of a computer glitch. Despite the pause, the lawsuits resumed systemwide in early October. 

According to a Jan. 4 article in The New York Times, Northwell sued 2,500 patients to collect unpaid medical bills amid the pandemic. The lawsuits filed by Northwell sought an average of $1,700 in unpaid debt, plus large interest payments.

But because of the COVID-19 resurgence, and following the Times article outlining the debt lawsuits, Northwell said it has since decided to extend the pause on legal filings and rescind any claims that were filed in 2020. 

"Given the recent resurgence of COVID cases in our area, we decided to extend the pause on legal filings, and we are also going to rescind any legal claims that were filed in 2020," Ms. Osborn told Becker's.

Northwell's chief business strategy officer, Richard Miller, and Ms. Osborn also shared with Becker's that debt lawsuits filed against patients are "very rare" and occur in just 0.1 percent of the system's claims. 

"It's pretty rare that we take legal action," Ms. Osborn said. "It is only after the patient has been unresponsive to multiple attempts by us to help resolve an outstanding balance and only if it is determined that the patient has a strong ability to pay."

Mr. Miller added that Northwell Health offers financial assistance for individuals up to 500 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, this is $130,000 a year in income, Mr. Miller said. 

Mr. Miller said the lawsuits filed in 2020 were from hospitalizations that occurred before the pandemic. 

"We never want to pursue any legal action on a patient," Mr. Miller said. "We want to work with them to offer them a zero-interest payment plan or offer them financial assistance if they qualify based on the income eligibility. It is very rare that we file a legal claim." 

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