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Stop suing patients, NAACP tells Carolinas HealthCare System

Carolinas HealthCare is asked to back off ‘the state’s most vulnerable people’

By Ames Alexander
aalexander@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • Prognosis: Profits ... Read the full series
  • Statement from groups

    “In its recent investigation called Prognosis: Profits, the Charlotte Observer revealed that Carolinas HealthCare System has lost sight of its mission.

    "While reaping large profits, paying executives millions, and socking away billions in reserves, Carolinas sues patients like Vietnam Veteran Cleveland Davis and attaches liens to the homes of people like Joyce Jones.

    "In fact, the Observer reports that Carolinas has filed more than 12,000 lawsuits over the past five years. This is unacceptable.

    “As organizations that represent low-income and working families, we call on Carolinas HealthCare to cease the practice of suing patients and we demand that it release all of the liens it holds on the primary residences of patients and former patients.

    "As a nonprofit system that receives hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer support, Carolinas should stop destabilizing the community by imposing great financial hardship on some of the state’s most vulnerable people.

    "We recognize that Carolinas provides benefits to Charlotte and surrounding areas by furnishing charity care and contributing to local health clinics. We do not think these good deeds justify the hospital system’s many egregious practices.

    “Carolinas HealthCare has a proud history and possesses the potential to live up to its mission. All it needs now is leadership and a commitment to the community.”

    – Issued by the N.C. Justice Center, the N.C. NAACP, the N.C. AFL-CIO and other groups


  • Carolinas HealthCare statement

    "Founded as the safety net hospital for the Greater Charlotte region, Carolinas HealthCare System has never strayed from its mission of ensuring all citizens have equal access to the highest quality healthcare in every community we serve, regardless of their ability to pay.

    "We recognize we live in challenging economic times and understand the profound impacts of financial hardship. Providing care to tens of thousands of underinsured patients and those who are uninsured who cannot afford the cost of their care is part of our core. We provide more care to that segment of the population than anyone in the Carolinas; it is who we are.

    "It is also why each and every one of our 48,000 caregivers works so hard to maintain a strong and vibrant health system; why we’ve created community-based clinics specifically designed to provide care for the underserved in struggling neighborhoods; and why we continue to invest in more convenient care locations throughout our region.

    "We are committed to evaluating our financial assistance program and patient billing processes and to improve the way we communicate them to our patients.”

    – From Carolinas HealthCare



The state NAACP and other groups representing low-income and working families on Tuesday called on Carolinas HealthCare System to stop suing patients who can’t afford to pay their hospital bills.

Their plea came in response to an investigation by the Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer, which last week revealed that the nonprofit hospital chain has filed more than 12,000 bill-collection lawsuits in the five years ending in 2010.

“The Bible says we’re not supposed to burden the poor and the sick and the afflicted. We’re supposed to lift them and help them and heal them,” NAACP President the Rev. William Barber said during the Charlotte stop of a statewide tour designed to bring attention to the struggles of low-income people. “(Carolinas HealthCare) is a group with money hounding people who are just trying to make it.”

Other groups calling for change at the Charlotte-based hospital system include the N.C. Justice Center, Action NC, the N.C. AFL-CIO, and the Black Women’s Caucus. The groups also demanded that Carolinas HealthCare remove the liens it currently holds on the primary residences of former patients.

Carolinas HealthCare said in a statement that it is “committed to evaluating our financial assistance program and patient billing processes and to improve the way we communicate them to our patients.”

“Carolinas HealthCare System has never strayed from its mission of ensuring all citizens have equal access to the highest quality healthcare in every community we serve, regardless of their ability to pay,” the system said.

Carolinas HealthCare officials say they don’t file suit unless patients fail to respond to repeated requests for payment. The officials say they don’t force people from their homes, but collect their money when they die or sell their homes.

And they’ve said in the past that the practice is only fair to the many patients who do pay their bills.

But the groups pushing for change see it differently.

“As a nonprofit system that receives hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer support, Carolinas should stop destabilizing the community by imposing great financial hardship on some of the state’s most vulnerable people,” their statement reads.

Carolinas HealthCare, which runs about 30 hospitals, has evolved into the nation’s second largest public hospital system.

The newspapers’ investigation found that N.C. hospitals filed more than 40,000 lawsuits over the five-year period. Most of those were filed by Carolinas HealthCare and Wilkes Regional Medical Center, a hospital CHS manages.

Among those sued by Carolinas HealthCare was Joyce Jones, a west Charlotte resident who had no job, little money and a low-cost insurance policy that covered only a fraction of her bills. After she was hospitalized for pancreatitis, she received a bill for $34,000.

In 2006, the system sued her and put a lien on her home. The house has a tax value of $70,000, and Jones worries that the lien may cause her family to lose it.

The hospital said it sent multiple statements to Jones before filing suit. Jones said she stayed with her brother after being hospitalized, and doesn’t remember getting the letters.

Jones showed up at the state poverty tour Tuesday evening to tell her story. “It’s still devastating to me,” she said. “Because I still don’t know how it will turn out.”

Most N.C. hospitals rarely, if ever, sue patients. Cecilia Moore, the chief operating officer at Duke University Medical Center, called the practice “very old school.”

But most hospitals do use collection agencies, which can damage a person’s credit.

The lawsuits and collections actions often hit people who are among those paying the highest rates for care: the uninsured. Bills for uninsured patients are usually higher because they don’t have insurance companies to negotiate discounts on their behalf.

Officials for Carolinas HealthCare say they provide care to anyone who needs it, and work hard to determine whether patients can afford to pay before filing suit.

Hospitals owned by Carolinas HealthCare are among the state’s most generous in providing free care for the needy.

But critics contend the system could afford to do more. Average annual profit at the system has exceeded $300 million over the past three years.

“We recognize that Carolinas (HealthCare) provides benefits to Charlotte and surrounding areas …,” reads the statement. “We do not think these good deeds justify the hospital system’s many egregious practices.”

Alexander: 704-358-5060
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