Virginia health system sued thousands of patients over medical debt, put liens on homes

The University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville is among the latest healthcare organizations that have come under fire for suing former patients over medical debt.

In a special report for The Washington Post, senior correspondent Jay Hancock and Elizabeth Lucas, data editor for Kaiser Health News, reveal that the university's health system has sued thousands of former patients, seized wages, put liens on homes and forced families into bankruptcy.

A Kaiser Health News analysis found that the University of Virginia Health System and its physicians sued former patients more than 36,000 times over a six-year period ending in June 2018. The suits were for more than $106 million. Amounts ranged from $13.91 to $1 million until July 2017, when the health system only sued patients with more than $1,000 in medical debt.

Other health systems have been in the news recently for suing former patients. A coalition of Baltimore citizens, backed by National Nurses United and the AFL-CIO union, published a report in May that found Johns Hopkins Hospital won wage garnishments or seized funds from patient bank accounts in hundreds of cases and that the cases disproportionately affected low-income patients.

Memphis, Tenn.-based Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare halted "court collection activities" in July after an investigation by MLK50 and ProPublica.

But the University of Virginia Health System's practices are especially notable because of the system's persistence in collections and its suing of low-income and middle-class patients, according to Mr. Hancock and Ms. Lucas, who cite court records, hospital documents and interviews with hospital officials and patients.

Mr. Hancock and Ms. Lucas said the Kaiser Health News analysis found that the system annually sues about 100 of its employees, garnishes wages of workers at low-paying employers and files property liens on thousands of homes in Virginia and outside the state.

Health system spokesman Eric Swensen told the authors that University of Virginia Health System also seized $22 million in state tax refunds to patients who owed money to the system in the last six fiscal years.

In response to the scrutiny of its debt collection practices, the University of Virginia Health System told Mr. Hancock and Ms. Lucas that the practices are legally required and necessary "to generate positive operating income," and referenced state law requiring state agencies to be aggressive in collecting debt.

Mr. Swensen also told the authors that the system handled about 6 million visits and cared for those patients "regardless of their ability to pay" during the six-year period ending June 2018.

The system will do "a comprehensive review" of its charity care rules and is "considering policies to provide additional financial assistance to low-income patients," Mr. Swensen added.

Read the full report in The Washington Post here.


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