02 hospital pandemic invs
CNN  — 

As the coronavirus spiked in Missouri last fall, a wave of cases hit a nursing home in the state’s rural heartland. Robin Bull, a part-time nurse, remembered an ambulance “coming and going constantly” on one especially scary morning, rushing residents to Moberly Regional Medical Center, the local hospital.

But even as Bull was helping send patients to Moberly Regional, the hospital was in the process of suing her and at least one other former employee at the nursing home. They were two of more than 600 former patients that the hospital has sued over medical bills during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a CNN analysis of court records.

Moberly Regional sued Bull last May for $9,281, costs that Bull said came from an emergency room visit for food poisoning several years ago. After a judge ruled in the hospital’s favor late last year, the company filed a motion to start garnishing part of her roughly $850-per-month salary.

Bull, who also receives disability payments, said she and her husband both contracted Covid-19 last summer, and they’ve struggled to pay their bills each month.

“I tried to reason with the lawyers and tell them there’s no way I can pay for this, but nothing worked,” Bull said. “Having this huge bill looming over my head – it’s been stressful, it’s been heart-sickening.”

Bull’s experience is hardly unique. Hospitals owned by Community Health Systems, Inc., one of America’s largest hospital chains, have filed at least 19,000 lawsuits against their patients over allegedly unpaid medical bills since March 2020, even as other hospitals around the country have moved to curtail similar lawsuits during the coronavirus pandemic, a CNN investigation found.

The company’s 84 hospitals, which are concentrated in the South and stretch from Alaska to Key West, Florida, have taken their patients to court for as little as $201 and as much as $162,000. They say litigation is a last resort.

CNN’s review of court filings across 16 states the company operates in found that most of the patients sued by CHS – like Bull – didn’t hire a lawyer or fight the lawsuits, and judges often ruled in the company’s favor by default. In some states, defendants’ debts piled on with attorney’s fees and interest. Elsewhere, the hospital chain’s subsidiaries quickly moved to garnish defendants’ paychecks after a judgment.

Advocates say those hardball collection tactics can leave low-income patients in financial ruin – especially considering the lawsuits were filed in the middle of the Covid-fueled economic collapse.

“I can’t think of a worse thing a hospital system can be doing than suing patients for medical bills during a pandemic and a recession,” said Caitlin Donovan, the spokeswoman for the National Patient Advocate Foundation, a patients’ rights group.

CHS in 2020 enjoyed its most profitable year in at least a decade, even as it was suing patients during the pandemic. The company made $511 million in net income last year, a big swing after four straight years of annual losses. That strong financial result led to the company’s top executives earning millions of dollars worth of bonuses, according to documents it has filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

One reason for the success: CHS has been buoyed by taxpayer support. It received $705 million in pandemic-related aid from the federal government’s CARES Act and other state and local programs in 2020, not including additional government loans it will have to pay back, according to its 2021 annual report to shareholders.

In a statement to CNN, CHS said its hospitals only sue a “small fraction” of the patients they treat every year, and that they work to provide assistance for those who can’t afford their bills.

“Legal action is always the last resort,” the company said. CHS hospitals only file lawsuits, it said, “after it is determined the patient appears to have some ability to pay based on credit record and employment status or if the patient has been non-responsive” following repeated attempts to discuss their bill.

The company said its hospitals do not “initiate litigation against any patient we know lost his or her job because of the pandemic,” and that under a new policy it adopted earlier this year, it would withdraw lawsuits against anyone making less than 200% of the federal poverty level – $25,760 for an individual. But many patients failed to fill out a form outlining their finances that could make them eligible for those reprieves or other aid, it said.

Patients being sued and lawyers who work on the cases say that the company’s rhetoric doesn’t always hold up. CNN interviewed more than a dozen people sued by CHS hospitals. Most said they had tried to communicate with the company’s lawyers, collections agents or the hospitals directly and found them unresponsive or unwilling to agree to a settlement they could afford.

Dr. Marty Makary, a Johns Hopkins University professor who has studied hospital lawsuits around the country, said CHS was far more litigious than most hospital groups, and that the company’s financial aid policy didn’t go nearly far enough.

“It’s like Marie Antoinette saying, ‘if somebody came to me begging for food, I would give them cake,’” Makary said. “It’s completely blind to the relentless, aggressive, predatory nature of debt collection on the ground.”

A huge caseload

CHS, which is based in a Nashville suburb, is a for-profit company that was founded in 1985. At its peak in 2014, it operated more hospitals across the U.S. than any other company, according to Modern Healthcare, a trade publication. It has sold off some of its facilities since then but is still ranked among the 10 largest hospital chains in the country.

The company’s practice of suing patients isn’t a new development: Many of its hospitals have brought large numbers of patients to court for years. The total number of lawsuits filed dipped in the spring of 2020, as many courthouses shut down in the early days of the pandemic, but then picked up again in the summer and fall. While the lawsuits were filed during the pandemic, they are typically over years-old medical bills.

To identify cases, CNN searched court records for lawsuits brought by a list of about 100 CHS subsidiaries, including those operating the company’s 84 current hospitals and others that ran more than a dozen facilities that CHS sold or closed during 2020 and early 2021.

CNN found about 24,000 lawsuits filed by the company’s hospitals, including more than 19,000 filed on or after March 13, 2020, when the federal government declared a national emergency over Covid-19. The review only included cases in which the hospitals sued individual people, as opposed to insurance companies. In states where information about cases was available online, CNN limited its review to lawsuits marked as related to debt, collections or monetary claims.

The company’s six Alabama hospitals filed at least 4,900 lawsuits during all of 2020 and the first four months of 2021, but the state’s court case search system does not make it possible to identify how many were filed after the pandemic gripped the U.S. or how many were debt-related.

The other top states CHS hospitals filed lawsuits in were Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Texas. Nationwide, roughly three-fourths of the company’s hospitals have filed at least a dozen lawsuits against patients since March 2020.

CNN was able to obtain court records from most but not all counties where CHS operates a hospital, so the findings are likely an undercount.

CHS is hardly the only hospital group that has sued patients, but experts say its aggressive legal strategy stands out. Makary, the Johns Hopkins professor, said his research had found “a pattern across the U.S.” that CHS hospitals are among the most litigious.

In Texas, for example, a Johns Hopkins study co-authored by Makary that covered about a fourth of the state’s counties found that only 7% of local hospitals sued any patients between January 2018 and February 2020. Nine of the top 10 most litigious hospitals in the state identified by the researchers were owned by CHS. CHS questioned the report’s methodology, saying it was skewed because the researchers included counties where the company’s hospitals operate and not all counties in the state. Makary said the research did not target CHS hospitals.

Spokespeople for three other of the largest national hospital chains – HCA Healthcare, LifePoint Health and CommonSpirit Health – said their hospitals do not sue patients over unpaid bills. Trinity Health, another large chain, suspended collections activity in March 2020 due to the pandemic and has “significantly limited any pursuit of legal action involving past due accounts,” a spokesperson said, although she declined to provide more details.

Other hospitals around the country have publicly said they will avoid suing patients during the coronavirus pandemic. In New York, the state government ordered publicly run hospitals not to sue over medical debt during the pandemic, and most of the state’s privately-owned facilities followed suit. One large New York hospital group, Northwell, sued several thousand patients but changed its policy and dropped those cases after The New York Times wrote about its legal practices in January.

CHS said that its hospitals don’t sell medical debt to third-party companies that then file lawsuits against patients, while some other hospitals do – a decision it said “skews any attempt to compare” its legal practices to other hospital groups.

‘Doing my best not to drown’

The ambulance bay at the CHS-owned Poplar Bluff Regional Medical Center in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

Most of the patients being sued by CHS who spoke to CNN said that they couldn’t afford to pay what the hospital was asking for. And letters to courts in cases around the country also raise questions about the company’s claims that it only tries to collect from patients who can afford to pay.

After being sued by Lake Granbury Medical Center, a CHS hospital outside of Fort Worth, Texas, Richard Piper wrote to a judge in August asking for relief from the $34,894 in medical debt the hospital was demanding.

“I am [writing] this response to inform you of my inability to [pay] this outstanding medical debt,” wrote Piper, who works at a salvage yard. “I only bring home a check of 525 dollars a week and have [been] helping two daughters with my grandkids… my prayer to you is please relieve some of this debt and help out the average person.”

Instead, the judge entered a default judgment against him, ordering him to pay the full amount as well as nearly $3,500 in attorney’s fees for the hospital’s lawyers – bills from a 2018 hospital stay. Piper said in an interview that his bill came after the hospital kept him longer than he had wanted, and that he was supporting his daughter’s family after she lost her job as a teacher due to Covid-19.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Piper said. “I can’t afford $35,000 – I don’t even make that in a year.”

In another letter to an Oklahoma court in October, a former patient being sued by CHS hospital AllianceHealth Clinton wrote that her partner had been laid off because of pandemic shutdowns, she was working part-time at a job that offered no health insurance, and she was struggling to pay each month’s rent.

“I am currently doing my best not to drown,” the woman wrote. “I do not have anything left to give. If you take my check from me, I would have no place to live.”

The hospital continued with the lawsuit. Two months after she wrote the letter, the court entered a judgment against her – ordering her to pay the hospital her $781 debt and nearly doubling it by tacking on $400 in attorney’s fees and $304 in court costs.

CHS said it could not comment on specific cases due to privacy regulations but that after reviewing the accounts of several patients who spoke to CNN, it is “satisfied that our hospitals followed their regular processes.”

Many defendants were either uninsured or owed large co-pays or deductibles. Jennifer Alegria, a chef and manager at a cafe in North Carolina, didn’t have health insurance when she found a lump in her breast several years ago. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and received a double mastectomy at the CHS-owned Lake Norman Regional Medical Center in Mooresville – and then a sheriff’s deputy showed up on her doorstep last June to serve her with a $146,000 lawsuit from the hospital.

Jennifer Alegria was sued for $146,000 by a CHS-owned hospital in North Carolina.

Alegria relied on funds from a GoFundMe fundraiser started by her daughter to settle the case, agreeing to pay about $20,000, she said – still a huge sum for a single mother of three making less than $40,000 a year. She said she also fell behind on medical bills from other health providers during her cancer “nightmare,” but the CHS hospital was by the far the most aggressive in trying to collect, and the only one to sue her.

“It felt like extortion,” Alegria said. “I was scared, and I just scrambled and tried to get some money together to pay it off.”

Once a court rules against a defendant, the hospital can move to put a lien on property they own, such as a house, or garnish part of their wages, depending on regulations that vary from state to state. In Missouri, for example, CHS’s three hospitals moved to garnish defendants’ wages in more than half of the pandemic-era cases that resulted in a judgment. Many garnishments were for people working at relatively low-wage employers – the most common was Walmart.

In its annual report, CHS acknowledged – in legal speak – that the pandemic is taking a toll on patients’ ability to pay their hospital bills. “We have observed deterioration in the collectability of patient accounts receivable for uninsured patients in comparison to pre-pandemic levels as the result of adverse economic conditions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the company wrote.

Christi Walsh, another Johns Hopkins researcher who has studied hospital lawsuits, said that it was typical for hospitals that sue patients to only make a tiny fraction of their revenue from those lawsuits.

“It’s not keeping the lights on for the hospitals – they don’t need to be doing this,” Walsh said. “But for the patients, some of them go bankrupt, some of them have money taken directly out of their paychecks … They’re choosing between medical care and food.”

In its statement to CNN, CHS defended its collections practices. In 2020, the company’s hospitals provided patients about $1 billion worth of “charity care,” which is not paid for, it said. Every patient is “given the option” to complete an application for financial assistance that could entitle them to free or discounted care – but many patients don’t fill out the form, the company said.

“The challenge often is that patients do not respond to the hospital’s attempts to talk to them about their bills, so we do not know what impact, if any, the pandemic has had on a patients’ ability to pay for medical care,” CHS said. It urged defendants in lawsuits who have lost income during the pandemic or fallen below the poverty threshold to contact its collections office.

“Sometimes, legal action is the only path through which patients will engage in a conversation about the amount they owe for healthcare services that have already been received,” it added.

But Daniel Moore, a lawyer in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, who has defended dozens of low-income defendants sued by the CHS-owned Poplar Bluff Medical Center, laughed out loud when a reporter read him the company’s claim that it doesn’t try to collect from people who can’t afford to pay.

“That’s total horseshit,” Moore declared. “Most of the people being sued are exactly those people… it just rains economic havoc down on them.”