January 22, 2015
Nonprofit hospitals are considered charities, and essential for many poorer patients who simply do not have the ability to pay for a portion or all of the medical care they receive. Because nonprofit hospitals do not pay local, state income, or federal taxes, these facilities are obligated to provide “charity” care to patients with low or no income, or financial assistance. While most nonprofit hospitals do not file lawsuits against patients who cannot afford to pay or garnish these patients’ wages, unfortunately some do. This has become increasingly apparent at one hospital in St. Joseph, MO – Heartland Regional Medical Center.
In an investigation performed by ProPublica and NPR, it seems that there are several nonprofit hospitals in the U.S. that have made it a practice to seize the wages of lower income patients. In many cases, a patient’s income qualifies his or her bill to be completely forgiven. Even in this situation, some nonprofit hospitals are choosing to garnish the patient’s wages regardless. It seems that some charity hospitals have simply become greedy.
The investigation found that Heartland is the top-rated hospital in Missouri in terms of seizing money from its patients; in fact, over a period of five years between 2009 and 2013, approximately 6,000 patients had their wages garnished. Even worse, the patient forks over a full 1/4 of his or her net wages. Patients who inform the hospital or court that they are the head of household or primary income provider will have about 10% of after-tax pay seized. Regardless, patients who are already poor become even poorer, as the interest added to the balance often leaves patients paying astronomical amounts for years – sometimes, for decades. The impact is so devastating for many people, the hospital has seemingly earned the nickname “Heartless Hospital” for the collection tactics used to collect debt from former patients – it is also in the process of changing its name to Mosaic Life Care.
Perhaps even sadder is the fact that not only do many patients face substantial debt and have an already poor lifestyle made even worse, many who are sued by nonprofit hospitals face ruined credit scores, liens against their homes, and more. Many are forced to work low-wage jobs just to make ends meet; even then, hospitals may then garnish both spouses’ wages. It seems a vicious, never-ending cycle for low-income families, who simply cannot get ahead. For one family, what began as a $14,000 emergency surgery for a burst appendix more than a decade ago has resulted in payment of more than $15,000 over a decade, with the family still owing $10,000 because of the 9% interest charged – the highest allowed under the law – on their debt. As Keith Herie says, “You’re never going to get rid of it and you’re never going to get ahead of it.”
The problem in some cases is that patients do not realize they may qualify for assistance. Many are never told that they can apply for financial aid, so they end up with huge debt. In the case of the Heries’, when a patient gets sued, even if the hospital learns by looking at wages that a patient is low-income, going back and qualifying for assistance isn’t possible. Tracey Clark, a spokesperson for the hospital, said that patients who legitimately work with Heartland and seek charity care are the ones who typically get assistance.
It all boils down to the fact that while low-income families should certainly make the effort to learn if financial aid may be available, many hospitals are simply “heartless.” It is a sad fact that in our country, the poorest of families simply cannot afford insurance coverage, or to be sick.