CBS 58 Investigates: Sick and Sued
Updated: 10:22 a.m. on Feb. 12, 2020
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Following our CBS 58 Investigates report, Advocate Aurora Health says it will stop suing patients immediately.
Published: 10 p.m. on Feb. 11, 2020
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- A CBS 58 Investigation has found hospitals in Southeastern Wisconsin sued over 4,600 Wisconsin patients in 2019 for unpaid medical bills. That’s triple the number of lawsuits filed in 2014. The suits can have profound impacts on families, leading to wage garnishments or liens on property.
In Kenosha County small claims court, former patients pack the courtroom every third Thursday of the month as lawyers representing hospitals and doctors’ offices try to cure unpaid medical bills. It’s where we met Navy Reservist Emanuel Lile.
Lile told the court commissioner, “I can’t for the life of me understand why they filed the lawsuit in the first place.”
Outside of the courtroom Lile showed CBS 58 Investigates his stack of documents. Aurora Health Care had been trying to collect $602.20 from Lile for an X-ray and MRI he received in 2018. Lile said he first learned about the bill in October 2019. He showed us a letter he faxed to the law firm handling the case offering to pay in November 2019 when started another job. He said he called to confirm the firm had received, the person he spoke with said they hadn’t and gave him another fax number to use. Lile learned through another letter from Aurora the firm didn’t receive the second fax either, so it filed the lawsuit.
Lile said, “They couldn’t wait two weeks? They just felt the need to file the lawsuit.”
He’s fighting the case because he’s in the Navy Reserve. Lile said if he loses a judgment could impact his security clearance, and ultimately his military career.
Lile said, “The adjudication facility will look precisely for these kinds of issues that may be financial or legal.”
Government security guidelines say an unpaid debt raises questions about a person’s ability to protected classified or sensitive information. Lile will have to answer those types of questions if he loses and a judgment is filed against him.
Lile said, “Personally, I think this is a deeply immoral thing that hospital do, its antithetical to the concept of health care.”
He’s not alone. This scene repeats itself in courthouses across southeastern Wisconsin.
Court records show the number of medical debt lawsuits filed by hospital has grown year after year, and the results can hang over patients for years.
Legal Action of Wisconsin Staff Attorney Jessica Roulette said, “Some people are dead broke.”
As a result, Roulette said many people facing these debts have nowhere to turn.
Roulette said, “Unfortunately for many consumers, not having the money is not a valid legal defense to the debt.”
Judgments last 20 years. People can have their wages garnished. Liens can be filed against their homes.
Roulette said, “These bills come back to pull the rug back out from under them just when they’re starting to get their act together and their financial affairs in order.”
Kenosha Small Claims Commissioner Geoffrey Dowse said, “The volume is unbelievable, and has been.”
Studies published by the Kaiser Family Foundation give one possible explanation for the increase in cases. In 2018, it found total out of pocket costs to patients across the U.S. increased 54 percent between 2006 and 2016. Last summer, it found premiums, plus the out of pocket spending, for people across the U.S. with large employer based health insurance grew by 67 percent over ten years. Both studies said those increases outpaced the growth in people’s paychecks.
Dowse said, “Deductibles go up, co-pays go up, the cost of the insurance goes up, people just can’t afford all of this.”
Investigative reporter Mark Stevens asked, “Is this the way we should handle health care in this country?”
Dowse said, “No its not. When they changed the bankruptcy laws five or six years ago, and even since then, the number one reason why people go bankrupt in this country is because of medical bills.”
CBS 58 Investigates asked Froedtert Hospital, Children’s Wisconsin, and Advocate Aurora Health to explain their billing and collections practices. We wanted to know why they’re going to court more often. Froedtert did not respond to our interview request.
Children’s Wisconsin said in a statement:
“We take our responsibility to work with families struggling with their medical bills very seriously. Any family who is struggling with their medical bills should reach out to our patient financial services representative at (414) 266-6262 or toll-free (888) 449-4998. We want to help.
Robust financial assistance, including discounted care and payment plans, are available to those who qualify. We work hard over many months to reach families with unpaid medical bills to work out a solution and avoid legal action. And 99.8% of the time those attempts are successful. In 2018, we provided over $82 million in uncompensated care.”
Advocate Aurora Health said in a statement:
“We are discontinuing the practice of pursuing litigation for unpaid medical bills as part of our ongoing policy review. Our commitment to helping people live well includes providing our patients assistance in navigating the financial costs of their health care. We offer a number of programs to assist them including cost-of-care estimates provided in our mobile app, patient portal and by our financial advocates; financial assistance programs; interest-free payment plans; and charity care to those who qualify.”
Advocate Aurora Health did not say when the lawsuits would stop, but it will join other hospitals in Memphis, Tennessee; Richmond, Virginia; and St. Louis, Missouri, that have decided to stop suing their patients.