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A healthcare giant sold dozens of hospitals, but continued to sue patients

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Tennova Healthcare-Lebanon no longer exists as a hospital. But he still sued Hope Cantwell.

There was a knock on the door of Cantwell’s apartment in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this year. He said he had not yet been vaccinated against covid-19 and that he was not responding to the door to strangers. So she didn’t.

But then several more attempts came over the course of a week. Finally, he masked himself and opened. A paralegal sued you; she was summoned to appear in court.

“I couldn’t believe someone, anyone? A corporation? a company? – I was doing this during a pandemic, ”Cantwell said.

It started with a visit to the hospital in May 2019.

Cantwell was admitted for a short stay at Tennova Healthcare-Lebanon, owned at the time by Community Health Systems, a publicly traded company based in Franklin, Tennessee. Her insurance covered most of the stay, but still left her with $ 2,700 to pay.

Almost a year later, he was in a financial position to start reducing the bill. He went online to pay, but could not find the hospital or its payment portal.

Cantwell Googled a bit and noted Purchased Vanderbilt University Medical Center the installation of 245 beds at the time of your stay. Is called Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital now.

Then came the pandemic. He was laid off from work for three months. And shortly after a letter arrived. A law firm representing the former hospital owner demanded payment and threatened to take her to court. She wasn’t sure what to do, since she couldn’t get all the cash. She was in a waiting pattern until the paralegal knocked on the door.

Pandemic push

An investigation by WPLN News found that Tennova Healthcare-Lebanon sued more than 1,000 patients, including Cantwell, over the past two years in multiple counties after settling to be sold. And hundreds of those lawsuits were filed during the pandemic, at a time when many companies have retracted of taking patients to court for unpaid medical debts. New york state forbidden the practice.

Community Health Systems is in the end of a corporate downsizing that reduced the company from more than 200 hospitals to 84. The liquidation helped stabilize the company after it took on massive debt during a period of rapid growth that briefly provided Community Health Systems with more hospitals than any other chain in the country.

But now many of those institutions are like zombie hospitals: little more than a legal entity that continues to take patients to court even after being sold to new owners who do not sue for medical bills.

When his summons came, panic seized Cantwell.

“My mind immediately went to the stimulus payments,” he said. “‘At least I have a way to deal with this now.'”

When the money from her final pandemic stimulus fell into her bank account, Cantwell said, she sent it directly to the company that had sued her, even though she almost felt like a victim of a scam. He wondered if he really owed all the money or if he qualified for financial assistance since he lost income during the pandemic.

But lawsuits are a rich man’s game. She couldn’t justify trying to find a lawyer or fighting a large for-profit company that would go after her for $ 2,700.

“I don’t have the resources and the emotional and mental capacity to handle more than just turning around and handing over whatever amount of money they would be happy with,” he said.

The debt problem of community health systems

Court records indicate that Community Health Systems stepped up filing lawsuits against patients in 2015 at the same time that its stock price plummeted over concerns about its massive corporate debt.

Aside from an emergency sale at a hospital, Community Health Systems also aggressively pursued patients. And the company did not allow the pandemic to stop that plan, despite the fact that He received more than $ 700 million from the federal government in Covid relief funds.

A spokesman for HCA Healthcare, the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, said its hospitals do not sue patients for unpaid medical debt, during the pandemic or otherwise. The Nashville-based corporation return all your covid relief funds.

A CNN investigation found Community Health Systems sued at least 19,000 patients during the pandemic, though the number is likely an undercount given the lawsuits filed on behalf of their former hospitals.

Like Tennova Healthcare-Lebanon, two other Community Health Systems hospitals in Tennessee also continued to take patients to court. after selling to Vanderbilt more recently. Community Health Systems maintained its debt in the Vanderbilt settlements and continues to search for patients who owe it money.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center spokesman John Howser said Vanderbilt does not sue patients to collect medical debts.

“Community Health Systems and its subsidiary Tennova Healthcare is a private company that is not owned or operated by Vanderbilt University Medical Center,” Howser wrote in a statement. “As such, VUMC is not involved in these lawsuits.”

Vanderbilt University Medical Center helps run a Community Health Systems-owned hospital in Clarksville, Tennessee, which continues to sue patients, but Howser noted that Community Health Systems has the majority interest.

“The point is, these are not rich people who don’t want to pay their bills,” said Christi Walsh, a nurse practitioner who leads clinical research at Johns Hopkins University. Your team focuses about hospitals that demand patients and pressures them to stop. “I have been on the ground in court. They are people who do not have money to pay it ”.

In Wilson County, Tennessee, Tennova Healthcare-Lebanon sued husband and wife. He works in a distribution center that closed for months during the pandemic. She cared for her adopted children and delivered meals with DoorDash, telling WPLN News that they were too busy to attend the hearing.

The problem is, not showing up to face debt in court can allow a business to take a portion of someone’s paycheck. It also ruins a person’s financial credit and stress can lead to health problems.

‘Threatens public trust’

The Walsh team investigated the most litigious hospitals in Texas from 2018 to 2020. The top five were affiliated with Community Health Systems. And most of the lawsuits were brought by South Texas Regional Medical Center, which was sold to HCA in 2017. But South Texas Regional Medical Center continued to sue patients.

Marty Makary, a Johns Hopkins surgeon who wrote a book on health care billing called “The price we pay”He said that most hospitals have changed tactics. Suing your patients doesn’t make them a lot of money after attorney and court fees, and it hurts your brand. But he said Community Health Systems has not expressed such concern.

“Community Health Systems, in all of our research on hospital billing practices and pricing, stands out as an aggressive institution that uniformly, across the country, engages in highly aggressive predatory billing – suing patients in court to garnish their salary, ”he said.

Even if Community Health Systems is willing to affect its reputation, Makary said, patients think of the health system as a whole. And they will think twice the next time they need to go to the doctor.

“It threatens public trust in our community institutions. And medical institutions are supposed to be above those games, ”he said.

In a statement to WPLN News, a Community Health Systems spokesperson said the company used its covid relief money to pay for pandemic expenses and make up for lost revenue. In January, the company said it would take patients to court only if they earn at least twice the federal poverty level, or about $ 53,000 a year for a family of four.

“We continually evaluate modifications to our collection practices to help patients struggling to pay hospital bills,” said spokeswoman Rebecca Pitt.

The policy change is intended to be retroactive. The company will withdraw litigation from anyone who qualifies, Pitt said. Patients who owe money to Community Health Systems and their former hospitals are being informed of the new policy in legal correspondence and can call 800-755-5152 to begin the process to withdraw a claim, he said.

This story is from a reporting association that includess WPLN, NPR and KHN.

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