Medical Debt Has a Long Overdue Moment on Center Stage

John Oliver made a big splash last weekend by highlighting the unsettling, and ridiculously lightly-regulated, world of medical debt collection, but a much longer and more serious story published a few days earlier by NPR adds significant depth to reporting on this undercovered issue.

The NPR piece (linked below) details how non-profit hospitals across the country have abused their tax-free status to pursue poor Americans in court. When discussions about universal health care take place in this country it is stories like these that we need to focus on: people who are driven into bankruptcy or who do not get the health care they need because they lack the money to pay outrageous medical bills. That these people are being hounded in court by institutions that also enjoy tax-free status is simply unconscionable.

A search at ProPublica, the public interest journalism website, yields tax filings for dozens of non-profit hospitals here in Oregon. As Oregon Public Broadcasting recently noted, that tax status is predicated on the idea that hospitals which are not in business to turn a profit will do substantial charity work and forgive medical debt whenever it is practical. Yet as OPB documents, between 2014 and 2015 the funds devoted to charitable health care dropped by more than a third here in Oregon, despite the fact that during this time period Obamacare was bringing many more low income patients into our state’s hospitals.

As NPR documents, this problem is hardly confined to Oregon. The radio network reports on a ‘non-profit’ hospital in Indiana that “filed more than 20,000 lawsuits from 2010 through 2015.” What is particularly shocking, though, is the fact that over these 20,000 cases the average bill was a mere $5000.

Granted all of this, it is particularly shocking to learn that many of these same hospitals have banded together both here in Oregon and elsewhere to lobby state governments for ‘protection’ from their customers, which is a legalistic way of saying that they want medical debt to be more ‘collectible’ than other types of debt.

It is unacceptable to think that families coping with the aftermath of an injury to a child, an Oregon car accident or even an Oregon industrial accident might also suddenly find themselves confronted with an additional lawsuit involving medical bills. As a Portland attorney focused on helping Oregonians navigate our court system I am committed to ensuring that everyone gets fair treatment from hospitals when it comes to billing concerns and, ultimately, to supporting legislation that ensures that ordinary people have the access to our courts which they need to protect their rights when it comes to medical debts.

 

NPR: Nonprofit Hospital Forgives debts and Stops Suing So Many Poor Patients

OPB: Hospital Charity in Oregon Dropping Precipitously

ProPublica: Nonprofit explorer