Hospital sues thousands of patients who can't pay bills

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As a nonprofit hospital, Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy (CMC-Mercy), under Carolinas HealthCare System, receives tax-exemptions to provide charity care and financial assistance. Despite its charitable mission, state records show the Charlotte, N.C., hospital has sued more than 12,000 patients over the past five years, many of whom couldn't afford to pay their medical bills, the Charlotte Observer reported.

System officials said they only sue when patients don't answer recurring payment requests.

"We always struggle with, 'Should we be doing that (filing lawsuits)?' " Carolinas HealthCare Chief Financial Officer Greg Gombar told the newspaper. "But it comes back to a message ... If you have the ability to pay, you need to pay because other people are."

Yet the article raises questions about whether the sued patients were actually able to pay.

The newspaper interviewed 25 patients facing a Carolinas HealthCare lawsuit and found that 17 were uninsured and 10 had no knowledge of available financial assistance programs. Interviews with another 15 sued patients revealed that at least one-third of them should have qualified for charity care.

But CMC-Mercy is giving its patients a new way to deal with hospital bills with a medical credit card that lets them repay without interest if they pay off their debts within a year, The News & Observer reported.

However, when CMC-Mercy patient Sue Bostic made a late payment, she was told the 9.25 percent interest rate would jump to 18 percent if she missed the deadline. "When they couldn't afford insurance to begin with - they're going to charge them 18 percent?" Bostic said in the article.

Meanwhile, in New York, hospitals are violating state health department guidelines and imposing extra barriers to obtain financial assistance, FierceHealthFinance reported last month. Yet those facilities still received almost half of the $1.2 billion in the state's uncompensated care system each year.

For more information:
- read the Charlotte Observer article
- here's another News & Observer article on patient credit cards

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