Carilion thinks twice about suing hospitalized patient

Already facing charges that it is using the accountable care organization model to stifle competition and create a regional monopoly, financially troubled Carilion Clinic has decided not to move forward with its planned quashing of a patient. The Roanoke, Va.-based nonprofit health system has withdrawn a lawsuit it had filed against a 60-year-old patient who was hospitalized at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, reports the Roanoke Times.

Since March, Elaine Harnsberger has run up unpaid hospital bills totaling more than $350,000. So Carilion Clinic sued--but made the mistake of asking the sheriff to serve the lawsuit while Harnsberger was still receiving inpatient care. "This is just unbelievable," Pat Palmer, the founder of Medical Billing Advocates of America, told the Times.

Carilion officials said they filed a motion to get the lawsuit dismissed just before Times reporters asked for comment on the case. "It is not our practice to serve patients with any type of collection notice while they are still hospitalized," Carilion spokesman Eric Earnhart told the Times.  The lawsuit "was a mistake," he said.

Carilion plans to ensure no additional collections lawsuits are served on hospitalized patients, added Earnhart. "It's fair to say that going forward there may be an additional layer of scrutiny. It's not something that we want to fall through the cracks again."

Carilion has a history of using the courts to collect unpaid debts. From 2003 to mid-2008, the health system obtained roughly 33,000 judgments in Roanoke's small claims court, accounting for 40 percent of the court's caseload. While Carilion states that only patients who have means to pay their bills are targeted, in 2008 the health system garnished the wages of a house painter who couldn't even afford a telephone. Carilion subsequently reduced its use of lawsuits and increased its charity-care provisions, last year spending $51 million on indigent care, reports the Times. So far this year, Carilion has filed 3,040 lawsuits vs. 10,690 in 2008.

Earnhart wouldn't comment on whether Harnsberger qualified for charity care or on the status of the bill. Carilion asked that the lawsuit be dismissed without prejudice, ensuring it still has the right to sue Harnsberger at a later date.

To learn more:
- read these Roanoke Times articles: article 1, article 2 and article 3

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