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Posted: Sunday, Apr. 22, 2012

Thomasville Medical Center makes a mark with charity care

By Ames Alexander
Published in: Prognosis: Profits
  • Prognosis: Profits

    A five-part series examining how N.C. hospitals profit at the expense of patients.

    Sunday: Nonprofits very profitable

    Monday: Charity care lacking

    Tuesday: Suing the needy

    Wednesday: Staying strong in Raleigh

    Thursday: Policies that could help

  • Ways to boost charity care

    Patient advocates say expanding eligibility is just one way to make hospitals more charitable. They also recommend that hospitals:

    • Make it easier for patients to apply for charity care. Some hospitals and hospital systems run “soft” credit checks on uninsured patients. Those checks do not affect a patient’s credit score but do provide the hospitals enough financial information to determine whether they qualify for charity care. That means patients can get help without the burden of providing lots of documents.

    • Post their charity care policies in prominent places. More than a third of N.C. hospitals provide no details about their charity care policies on their websites, the Observer and The News & Observer (of Raleigh) found.

    • Be required to report their charity care spending to the state. Nine states require that an accounting of hospital charity care be made public. North Carolina does not. Patient advocates say better disclosure would likely encourage some hospitals to provide more financial help to uninsured patients.

  • Related Images

    In the heart of North Carolina furniture country, in a county struggling with above-average unemployment, sits a hospital with a little-known distinction. Thomasville Medical Center is, by one important measure, the state’s most generous hospital.

    In 2010, the hospital devoted 13 percent of its budget to charity care – the highest percentage in the state.

    Located about 70 miles northeast of Charlotte, the 146-bed hospital is owned by Novant Health, a nonprofit hospital chain with the state’s most generous charity care policy. At hospitals owned by Novant, uninsured patients with family incomes less than 300 percent of federal poverty guidelines can qualify for free care.

    That means a family of four with an income of less than $69,000 would qualify. At that level, many Thomasville residents would be eligible. The town’s median family income is about $36,000.

    Some North Carolina hospitals require patients to supply extensive documentation before they can be approved for charity care. Supplying such information can be hard for patients facing medical emergencies.

    But Thomasville, like other Novant hospitals, uses “soft credit checks,” making it easier for patients to qualify. That system gathers financial information so that patients don’t have to provide as much documentation. The checks don’t affect patients’ credit scores.

    Novant’s financial assistance policy and soft credit checks help explain why several of its hospitals are among those in North Carolina that spend the largest percentages of their budgets on charity care.

    Financial counselors are trained to make eligible patients aware of the financial assistance policy. Novant also explains the policy in a brochure and on its website.

    “It’s not buried on our website,” said Novant spokesman Jim Tobalski. “That’s something we’ve improved on.”

    Thomasville also hosts a free medical clinic run by nonprofit Davidson Medical Ministries, providing free medical tests to uninsured patients there.

    Thomasville Medical Center president Kathie Johnson said providing charity care is “part of our mission to take care of all Davidson County.”

    “Without this kind of support,” she said. “it would be very difficult for some people to get the care they need.”

    Staff writer Karen Garloch contributed.

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