By Jay Hancock and Elizabeth Lucas: For More Info, Go Here…
Over six years, the state institution filed 36,000 lawsuits against patients seeking a total of more than $106 million in unpaid bills, a KHN analysis finds.
Heather Waldron and John Hawley are losing their four-bedroom house in the hills above Blacksburg, Va. A teenage daughter, one of their five children, sold her clothes for spending money. They worried about paying the electric bill. Financial disaster, they say, contributed to their divorce, finalized in April.
Their money problems began when the University of Virginia Health System pursued the couple with a lawsuit and a lien on their home to recoup $164,000 in charges for Waldron’s emergency surgery in 2017.
The family has lots of company: Over six years ending in June 2018, the health system and its doctors filed 36,000 lawsuits against patients seeking a total of more than $106 million, seizing wages and bank accounts, putting liens on property and homes and forcing families into bankruptcy, a Kaiser Health News analysis has found.
Unpaid hospital bills are a leading cause of personal debt and bankruptcy across the nation, with hospitals from Memphis to Baltimore criticized for their role in pushing families over the financial edge. But UVA stands out for the scope of its collection efforts and how persistently it seeks payment, pursuing poor as well as middle-class patients for almost all they’re worth.
KHN’s findings, based on court records, documents and interviews with hospital officials and dozens of patients, show UVA:
- Sued patients for as much as $1 million and as little as $13.91, and garnished thousands of paychecks, largely from workers at lower-pay employers such as Walmart, where UVA took wages more than 800 times.
- Seized $22 million over six years in state tax refunds owed to patients with outstanding bills, most of it without court judgments, under a program intended to help state and local governments collect debts.
- Sued about 100 patients every year who also happened to be UVA Health System employees and filed thousands of property liens over the years, from Albemarle County all the way to Georgia.
- Dunned some former patients an additional 15% for legal costs, plus 6% interest on their unpaid bills, which over years can add up to more than the original bill.
- Has the most restrictive eligibility guidelines for patient financial assistance of any major hospital system in Virginia. Savings of only $4,000 in a retirement account can disqualify a family from aid, even if its income is barely above the poverty level.
The hospital ranked No. 1 in Virginia by U.S. News & World Report is taxpayer-supported and state-funded, not a company with profit motives and shareholder demands. Like other nonprofit hospitals, it pays no federal, state or local taxes on the presumption it offers charity care and other community benefits worth at least as much as those breaks. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist, oversees its board.
UVA defended the institution’s practices as legally required and necessary “to generate positive operating income” to invest in medical education, new facilities, research and the latest technology. They point to the Virginia Debt Collection Act of 1988, which requires state agencies to “aggressively collect” money owed.