Over recent years there has been much discussion about the cost of medical care in this country and as those in Washington as well as coworkers around the water cooler argue about the rising cost of heath care and what exactly should be done, many patients are making appearances in court because they are unable to pay for medical services that have already been provided.
Patients who are visiting rural emergency rooms in record numbers are also defaulting on their bills at higher rates than ever before. Meanwhile, many of the nation’s 2,000 rural hospitals have begun to buckle under bad debt, with more than 100 closing in the past decade and hundreds more on the brink of insolvency as they fight to squeeze whatever money they’re owed from patients who simply don’t have it. Many of the patients do have insurance but still owe their co-pay or deductibles, which on average have tripled in the past decade across the United States.
The end result? Lawsuits…..a LOT of them, spreading through civil courts across the country.
Not every hospital sues over unpaid bills, but a few sue regularly. According to a study published in the American Medical Association’s journal, JAMA. Five hospitals accounted for over half of all lawsuits — and all but one of those were nonprofits. In 2014, NPR and ProPublica published stories about a hospital in Missouri that sued 6,000 patients over a four-year period. If the hospitals win a judgment, they have the right to garnish money from a patient’s paycheck or bank account or they can put a lien against a house. Hospitals in both urban and rural areas across the U.S. are earning monthly garnishments from hourly employees at places like Quickstop, Local Diners, Wendy’s, Instant Pawn and Muffler Shops.
In some cases the patients (and their attorneys) question some of the hospital’s supposed costs. In one particular case those fees included $75 for a surgical mask; $11.10 for each cleaning wipe; $23.62 for two standard ibuprofen pills; $592 for a strep throat culture; $838 for a pregnancy test.
Unfortunately, few patients who are sued by hospitals seek legal assistance. The vast majority never even show up in court. Instead, the hospital wins the case by default, and the patient is accountable for the entire bill, even if there are errors or duplicate charges.
According to credit reports, unpaid medical bills are the leading cause of personal debt and bankruptcy in the United States. Emergency medical care has become a standoff between hospitals and patients both of which are going broke.