'Unique historical fear' of billing at Illinois system could keep patients from getting vaccinated, official says

Patient distrust persists regarding the billing practices at Urbana, Ill.-based Carle Health, and it may keep them from receiving their COVID-19 vaccines, according to a May 12 report from Providence, R.I.-based Brown University’s Documenting COVID-19 project.

Carle Health has a history of billing methods that have caused distrust among its patients, according to the report. For example, the health system aggressively pursued payments, including through the courts, for patients who didn't pay their medical bills in the early 2000s, and patients faced skyrocketing bills when it switched to a provider-based billing model and recategorized certain areas as hospital outpatient areas.

Some patients who received COVID-19 vaccines at Carle Health told the Documenting COVID-19 project they were hesitant to go, due to fear of being billed.

After some patients who got vaccinated against COVID-19 at Carle Health received erroneous bills, the health system said in March it would ensure future COVID-19 vaccine recipients did not receive such invoices. However, several patients the Documenting COVID-19 project interviewed said they had been billed by Carle Health for their COVID-19 vaccinations after that pledge was made.

During an early March conference call between the Illinois Department of Public Health and local health departments, Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde told state officials a "unique historical fear" of Carle Health's billing practices remains, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project.

While hospital billing issues often affect a small number of patients, Ms. Pryde said they tend to "reverberate way, way, way farther" beyond the patients they initially affected.

"There's just a lot of residual distrust there within certain communities," she said. "It's almost generational like they may not have even had an experience with it, but they have heard about it. One of the things that we’re doing is to just continually say to the public, there will be no out-of-pocket cost to you for this vaccine — period."

Matt Kolb, Carle Health's chief operating officer, said the health system has worked hard to build trust with its patients, saying it has "come a long way in terms of communication with patients around costs and billing and the rest."

The Documenting COVID-19 project is an effort to build an archive of searchable documents about the pandemic obtained through state open-records laws and the Freedom of Information Act. 


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