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The pandemic did not stop some hospitals from suing patients for unpaid bills

January 6, 2021

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Brian M. Rosenthal
The New York Times, January 5, 2021

When the coronavirus began spreading through New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered state-run hospitals to stop suing patients over unpaid medical bills, and almost all of the major private hospitals in the state voluntarily followed suit by suspending their claims.

But one chain of hospitals plowed ahead with thousands of lawsuits: Northwell Health, which is the state’s largest health system and is run by one of Mr. Cuomo’s closest allies.

The nonprofit Northwell sued more than 2,500 patients last year, records show, a flood of litigation even as the pandemic has led to widespread job losses and economic uncertainty.

They hit teachers, construction workers, grocery store employees and others, including some who had lost work in the pandemic or gotten sick themselves.

After this article was published Tuesday morning, Northwell abruptly announced it would stop suing patients during the pandemic and would rescind all legal claims it filed in 2020.

Across the country, medical debt lawsuits have grown increasingly common in recent years, as health care costs have risen and insurance companies have shifted more of the burden onto patients through larger deductibles and co-payments. The cases are rarely contested in court and usually lead to default judgments, allowing hospitals to garnish wages and freeze accounts to extract money, sometimes without the patient’s knowledge.

Northwell had not been alone in pursuing debt through the courts during the pandemic. About 50 hospitals in New York have sued a total of 5,000 patients since March, according to a search of filings in courts around the state.

In an interview last month, Richard Miller, the system’s chief business strategy officer, defended the cases, saying Northwell had the right to collect what it was owed.

“We have no interest in pursuing these cases legally. It’s not what we want to do,” Mr. Miller said, before the hospital changed course on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, in some cases, they’re not leaving us much of an option.”

St. Peter’s Health Partners, which runs a chain of hospitals in the Albany area and filed about 1,000 lawsuits last year, and Oneida Health, a health care system near Syracuse that filed about 500 lawsuits, both said in statements that they temporarily stopped suing in the spring but resumed over the summer.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

Is this any way to finance our health care system? Sue people who cannot afford to pay their medical bills? We have discussed this many times before, and we have discussed a better financing system that would prevent medical debt, besides guaranteeing health care for everyone – single payer improved Medicare for All.

Why is this still an issue?

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

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Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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