North Carolinians overwhelmingly favor banning hospitals from placing liens on the homes of patients who can’t pay their bills, according to a new poll.
The poll – commissioned by N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal watchdog group – also found that the large majority of voters think hospitals should be required to disclose their charity care policies.
The two hospital questions on the poll were prompted by a recent investigation by the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer, which found N.C. hospitals have filed more than 40,000 bill-collection lawsuits in the five years ending in 2010.
Hospitals win most of the suits, allowing them to put liens on the homes of patients. Those liens can make it impossible for patients to sell or refinance their houses.
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The investigation also found that more than a third of the hospitals – including Gaston Memorial Hospital in Gastonia and Lake Norman Regional Medical Center in Mooresville – didn’t provide details about their charity care policies on their web sites.
In the poll of 600 voters, conducted May 11 through May 13 by Public Policy Polling, 77 percent of respondents said hospitals should not be allowed to place liens on the homes of people who are unable to pay their bills. Fourteen percent said hospitals should be allowed to, and 9 percent said they weren’t sure.
While Democrats were more likely to favor a ban on liens, most Republicans sided with the overall majority. Seventy one percent of GOP respondents said liens shouldn’t be allowed, compared to 85 percent of Democrats. Respondents tended to disapprove of liens regardless of their sex, race and where they live.
“(North Carolinians) don’t think hospitals should be treating this like credit card debt,” said Rob Schofield, policy director for N.C. Policy Watch. “This isn’t like a big-screen TV purchase or buying sports tickets. People understand families shouldn’t be losing their homes because someone got sick through no fault of their own.”
Most of the N.C. lawsuits – more than 24,000 over the five-year period – were filed by two entities: Carolinas HealthCare System, a multibillion-dollar nonprofit hospital chain based in Charlotte, and Wilkes Regional Medical Center, a single hospital in North Wilkesboro that’s managed by Carolinas HealthCare.
Carolyn Barber was among those sued. She found herself unable to pay a $56,000 bill after she was hospitalized at CMC-University for respiratory problems in 2009.
Barber was 63 at the time, with no health insurance, no job and a monthly income of less than $900.
When Barber tried to refinance her home in Charlotte’s University City area in 2010, she found she couldn’t because the hospital had obtained a lien on the house.
Officials for Carolinas HealthCare, which owns the hospital, say they provide care to anyone who needs it, and sue only when people fail to answer repeated requests for payment. They say they never force patients from their homes, but collect after patients die or sell their houses.
And they say they work hard to determine whether patients can afford to pay before suing.
System officials said they tried to qualify Barber for financial assistance, but found she had too much in savings and home equity. Barber said she deserved help, but the hospital didn’t get an accurate picture of her finances.
In North Carolina, hospital charity care policies aren’t always well advertised. About two thirds of the more than 30 uninsured patients interviewed by the newspapers said they were never informed about charity care when they sought treatment at N.C. hospitals. And during visits to emergency rooms, an Observer reporter found no information about the hospitals’ charity care policies.
Eighty one percent of poll respondents said hospitals should be required to inform all patients of their policies for free and reduced-price care. Twelve percent said they should not, and 7 percent said they weren’t sure.
Democrats were more likely than Republicans to favor mandatory disclosure, but most respondents from both parties supported it. Eighty six percent of Democrats favor such disclosure, compared to 75 percent of Republicans.
Gov. Bev Perdue will introduce a proposal this week that would require hospitals to make the details of charity care programs more readily available to patients, a spokesman said.
The plan would require hospitals to publicly post the hospital’s financial assistance policy – and to print those policies on the bills they send to patients.
Another question on the poll asked respondents their opinion about provisions in the federal health care reform law that would ban insurance companies from denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions and allow parents to enroll children in their family coverage until they reach age 26.
Asked whether those provisions should be repealed, 65 percent said no, 24 percent said yes and 11 percent said they weren’t sure.
Poll questions also addressed campaign finance and casino-style gambling, among other things. Full poll results will be available on Tuesday.