The state NAACP and other groups representing low-income and working families on Tuesday called on Carolinas HealthCare System to stop suing patients who cant 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 were not supposed to burden the poor and the sick and the afflicted. Were 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 Womens 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 dont file suit unless patients fail to respond to repeated requests for payment. The officials say they dont force people from their homes, but collect their money when they die or sell their homes.
And theyve 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 states most vulnerable people, their statement reads.
Carolinas HealthCare, which runs about 30 hospitals, has evolved into the nations 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 doesnt remember getting the letters.
Jones showed up at the state poverty tour Tuesday evening to tell her story. Its still devastating to me, she said. Because I still dont 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 persons 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 dont 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 states 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 systems many egregious practices.