Tagged Out-Of-Pocket Costs

It’s Not Just Hospitals That Sue Patients Who Can’t Pay

Nashville General Hospital is a safety-net facility funded by the Tennessee capital city. For a patient without insurance, this is supposed to be the best place to go in a city with many hospitals. But for the uninsured, it may have been the worst choice in 2019.

Its emergency room was taking more patients to court for unpaid medical bills than any other hospital or practice in town. A WPLN investigation found the physician-staffing firm that runs the ER sued 700 patients in Davidson County during 2019.

They include patients such as Sonya Johnson, a 52-year-old social worker and single mother. By juggling her care between a nonprofit clinic and Nashville General, Johnson had figured out how to manage her health problems, even though she was, until recently, uninsured.

In 2018, she went to see her doctor, who charges patients on a sliding scale. Her tongue was swollen and she was feeling weak. The diagnosis? Severe anemia.

“He called me back that Halloween day and said, ‘I need you to get to the emergency [room], stat — and they’re waiting on you when you get there,’” she recalled.

Nashville General kept her overnight and gave her a blood transfusion. They wanted to keep her a second night — but she was worried about the mounting cost and asked to be sent home.

Staying the one night meant she was admitted to the hospital itself, and the bill for that part of her care wasn’t so bad, Johnson said. The institution’s financial counselors offered a 75% discount because of her strained finances and because her job didn’t offer health insurance at the time.

But emergency rooms are often run by an entirely separate entity. In Nashville General’s case, the proprietor was a company called Southeastern Emergency Physicians. And that’s the name on a bill that showed up in Johnson’s mailbox months later for $2,700.

“How in the world can I pay this company, when I couldn’t even pay for health care [insurance]?” Johnson asked.

Social worker Sonya Johnson received a civil warrant to appear in court when the company that runs Nashville General Hospital’s emergency room threatened to sue her over a $2,700 ER bill — long after she’d already negotiated a reduced payment schedule for the rest of her hospital stay.(Blake Farmer/WPLN)

Johnson didn’t recognize the name of the physician practice. A Google search didn’t help much. There’s no particular website, though a listing of webpages that do turn up in such a search suggests the company staffs a number of emergency departments in the region.

Johnson said she tried calling the number listed on her bill to see if she could get the same charity-care discount the hospital gave her, but she could only leave messages. And then came a knock at her apartment door over the summer. It was a Davidson County sheriff’s deputy with a summons requiring Johnson to appear in court.

“It’s very scary,” she said, and she recalled thinking “What have I done? And for a medical bill?”

Handoff Of Lawsuits?

Being sued over medical debt can be a big deal because it means a business can get a court-ordered judgment to garnish patients’ wages, taking money directly from their paycheck. The strategy is meant to make sure patients don’t blow off their medical debts. But this is not good for the health of people who are uninsured, said Bruce Naremore, chief financial officer at Nashville General.

“When patients owe money, and they feel like they’re being dunned all the time, they don’t come back to the hospital to get what they might need,” he said.

Under Naremore’s direction in the past few years, Nashville General had stopped suing patients for hospital fees. He said it was rarely worth the court costs.

But Southeastern Emergency Physicians — which, since 2016, has been contracted by the hospital to run and staff its emergency department — went the other way, filing more lawsuits against patients than ever in 2019.

Naremore said the decision on whether to sue over emergency care falls to the company that staffs the ER, not Nashville General Hospital.

“It’s a private entity that runs the emergency room, and it’s the cost of doing business,” he said. “If I restrict them from collecting dollars, then my cost is going to very likely go up, or I’m going to have to find another provider to do it.”

This is a common refrain, said Robert Goff, a retired hospital executive and board member of RIP Medical Debt. The nonprofit helps patients trapped under a mountain of medical bills, which are the No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcy.

“So the hospital sits there and says, ‘Not my problem.’ That’s irresponsible in every sense of the word,” Goff said.

The practice of suing patients isn’t new for Southeastern Emergency Physicians or its parent company, Knoxville, Tennessee-based TeamHealth. But such lawsuits have picked up in recent years, even as the company has stopped its practice of balance-billing patients.

TeamHealth is one of the two dominant ER staffing firms in the nation, running nearly 1 in 10 emergency departments in the United States. And its strategy of taking patients to court ramped up after it was purchased by the private equity giant Blackstone, according to an investigation by the journalism project MLK50 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Under pressure from journalists, TeamHealth ultimately pledged to stop suing patients and to offer generous discounts to uninsured patients.

Officials from TeamHealth declined WPLN’s request for an interview to answer questions about how widespread its practice of suing patients for ER doctors’ services and fees has been.

“We will work with patients on a case by case basis to reach a resolution,” TeamHealth said in an email.

According to court records obtained by WPLN, the firm filed about 700 lawsuits against patients in Nashville in 2019. That’s up from 120 in 2018 and just seven in 2017. Its only contract in the city is with Nashville General’s ER, and the patients reached by WPLN said they were uninsured when they were sued.

What’s surprising to Mandy Pellegrinwho has researched medical billing in Tennessee at the nonpartisan Sycamore Institute, is that it was all happening at Nashville General — where treating uninsured patients is part of the hospital’s mission.

“It is curious that a company that works for a hospital like that might resort to those sorts of actions,” Pellegrin said.

A Pledge To Drop Cases

As for Sonya Johnson — she eventually went to court and worked out a payment plan of $70 a month over three years.

And now TeamHealth tells WPLN that its intent is to drop pending cases.

“We will not file additional cases naming patients as defendants and will not seek further judgments,” a TeamHealth spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Our intent is not to have these pending cases proceed. We’re working as expeditiously as possible on resolving individual outstanding cases.”

Johnson said she has been told that the lawsuit Southeastern Emergency Physicians filed against her will be dropped — but that she still owes the $2,700 bill.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes WPLN, NPR and Kaiser Health News. 

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Analysis: Who Profits From Steep Medical Bills? The People Tasked With Fixing Them.

Every politician condemns the phenomenon of “surprise” medical bills.

Last week, two committees in the House were marking up new surprise billing legislation. One of the few policy proposals President Donald Trump brought up in this year’s State of the Union address was his 2019 executive order targeting “balance bills.” In the Democratic debates, candidates have railed against such medical bills, and during commercial breaks, back-to-back ads from groups representing doctors and insurers proclaimed how much the health care sector also abhors this uniquely American form of patient extortion.

Patients, of course, hate surprise bills most of all. Typical scenarios: A patient having a heart attack is taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital and gets hit with a bill of over $100,000 because that hospital wasn’t in his insurance network. A patient selects an in-network provider for a minor procedure, like a colonoscopy, only to be billed thousands for the out-of-network anesthesiologist and pathologist who participated.

And yet, no one with authority in Washington has done much of anything about it.

Here’s why: Major sectors of the health industry have helped to invent this toxic phenomenon, and none of them want to solve it if it means their particular income stream takes a hit. And they have allies in the capital.

That explains why Trump’s executive order, issued last year, hasn’t resulted in real change. Why bipartisan congressional legislation supported by both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Health Committee to shield Americans from surprise medical bills has gone nowhere. And why surprise billing provisions were left out of the end-of-year spending bill in December, which did include major tax relief for many parts of the health care industry.

Surprise bills are just the latest weapons in a decades-long war among the players in the health care industry over who gets to keep the fortunes generated each year from patient illness: $3.6 trillion in 2018.

Here’s how they came to be:

Forty years ago, when many insurers were nonprofit entities and being a doctor wasn’t seen as a particularly good entree into society’s top 1%, billed rates were far lower than they are today, and insurers mostly just paid them. Premiums were low or paid by an employer. Patients paid little or nothing in copayments or deductibles.

That’s when a more entrepreneurial streak kicked in. Think about the opportunities: If someone is paying you whatever you ask, why not ask for more?

Commercial insurers as well as Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, some of which had converted to for-profit status by 2000, began to push back on escalating fees from providers, demanding discounts.

Hospitals and doctors argued about who got to keep different streams of revenue they were paid. Doctors began to form their own companies and built their own outpatient surgery centers to capture payments for themselves.

So today your hospital and doctor and insurer — all claiming to coordinate care for your health — are often in a three-way competition for your money.

As the battle for revenue has heated up, each side has added weapons to capture more: Hospitals added facility fees and infusion charges. Insurers levied ever-rising copayments and deductibles. Most important, they limited the networks of providers to those that would accept the rates they were willing to pay.

Surprise bills are the latest tactic: When providers decided that an insurer’s contracted payment offerings were too meager, they stopped participating in the insurer’s network; either they walked away or the insurer left them out. In some cases, physicians decided not to participate in any networks at all. That way, they could charge whatever they wanted when they got involved in patient care and bill the patient directly. For their part, insurers didn’t really care if those practitioners demanding more money left.

And, for a time, all sides were basically fine with this arrangement.

But as the scope and the scale of surprise bills have grown in the past five years, more people have experienced these costly, unpleasant surprises. With accumulating bad publicity, they have become impossible to ignore. It was hard to defend a patient stuck with over $500,000 in surprise bills for 14 weeks of dialysis. Or the $10,000 bill from the out-of-network pediatrician who tends to newborns in intensive care. How about the counties where no ambulance companies participate in insurance, so every ambulance ride costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars?

These practices are an obvious outrage. But no one in the health care sector wants to unilaterally make the type of big concessions that would change them. Insurers want to pay a fixed rate. Doctors and hospitals prefer what they call “baseball-style arbitration,” where a reasonable charge is determined by mediation. Both camps have lined up sympathetic politicians for their point of view.

So, nothing has changed at the federal level, even though it’s hard to imagine another issue for which there is such widespread consensus. Two-thirds of Americans say they are worried about being able to afford an unexpected medical bill — more than any other household expense. Nearly 8 in 10 Americans say they want federal legislation to protect patients against surprise bills.

States are passing their own surprise billing laws, though they lack power since much of insurance is regulated at a national level.

Now members of Congress have yet another chance to tackle this obvious injustice. Will they listen to hospitals, doctors, insurers? Or, in this election year, will they finally heed their voter-patients?

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Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Happy Friday! And Happy Valentine’s Day, where we at KHN have compiled some of the best #HealthPolicyValentines from Twitter (this seems the right group for that level of wonkiness!). Check out some great ones, like this from Laura Marston:

“One vial a week
Keeps me alive
Used to cost $20
Now it’s $275.”

Now on to equally fun things, like budgets!

President Donald Trump released his proposed budget this week with only the vaguest of a health care plan mentioned. A mystery pot of $844 billion signaled deep cuts to Medicaid and subsidies under the health law. In particular, an obscure passage referred to “ending the financial bias that currently favors able-bodied working-age adults over the truly vulnerable.” Critics were scratching their heads how the released budget aligned with Trump’s promise to protect people’s coverage. “You can’t cut $1 trillion from these programs and protect the most vulnerable,” said Aviva Aron-Dine of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The Associated Press: Mystery $844B Pot in Trump Budget Signals Medicaid Cuts

The budget also calls for an almost 16% cut to the CDC (yes, the agency handling the coronavirus outbreak). But top officials say that’s because the administration wants the CDC to narrow its focus to its core mission of preventing and controlling infectious diseases and handling public health crises.

The Washington Post: Trump Budget Cuts Funding for Health, Science, Environment Agencies

Trump also wants to cut the budget for the National Institutes of Health by 6.5%. (Yes, that would affect the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is working on a vaccine for the coronavirus.)

The Wall Street Journal: Trump Proposes $4.8 Trillion Budget, With Cuts to Safety Nets

Another odd little nugget in the budget: Trump wants to strip the FDA of its authority over tobacco products and create an agency within HHS solely for that purpose.

Stat: Trump Doesn’t Want the FDA to Regulate Tobacco

For a full breakdown of the budget’s details, check out our roundup here.


This week, the coronavirus strain got an official name, which is — drum roll, please —COVID-19. Although the announcement probably set off celebrations among scientists and researchers who have been driven up a wall because everyone has been simply calling it “coronavirus,” I am here to report that a day into its official designation 95% of headlines are stilling using only the generic term.

— It is, however, important to note that WHO officials were careful not to name the disease after a particular region or people so as to avoid further stigmatization surrounding any outbreaks.

Time: What’s in a Name? Why WHO’s Formal Name for the New Coronavirus Disease Matters

— As the death toll climbs in China, officials have expanded their “wartime” campaign to round up all the people who may be infected. But, as you can imagine, that is not going perfectly. Not only is it stoking tensions among an angry and scared nation whose residents aren’t happy with how the government is handling the crisis, but also it’s thrusting people who haven’t even tested positive for the virus into situations where they become vulnerable to infection.

The New York Times: China Expands Chaotic Dragnet in Coronavirus Crackdown

— Readers of The Friday Breeze know I’ve been harping on the fact that our national attention has been focused on COVID-19 even though we have only 15 (non-fatal) confirmed cases of it here and the common flu is far more deadly to us. Well, there’s a psychological basis for why we tend to panic over things that statistically are unlikely to affect us. Pretty much we can be terrible at accurately assessing risk.

The New York Times: Coronavirus ‘Hits All the Hot Buttons’ for How We Misjudge Risk

— It was a bit of a roller-coaster week with data coming out of China. At first, it seemed the cases were slowing down, but then the diagnostic criteria were tweaked, and all of a sudden we had nearly 15,000 cases added in one night.

The New York Times: Coronavirus Cases Seemed to Be Leveling Off. Not Anymore.

— CDC Director Robert Redfield said that the United States is essentially trying to buy time with its containment strategy, but it is quite likely there will eventually be person-to-person transmission of the virus here. (Which means people other than evacuees from Wuhan will start getting it.)

Stat: CDC Director: More Person-To-Person Coronavirus Infections in U.S. Likely

— And you can see how easily that could happen, given a U.S. evacuee was mistakenly released from the hospital even though she was infected with the coronavirus.

CNN: First US Evacuee Infected With Coronavirus Was Mistakenly Released From Hospital

— In an update from the cruise from h-e-double-hockey-sticks: Tensions continue to rise along with COVID-19 cases among the passengers and crew of a ship quarantined off the coast of Japan. As one health official said this week: Remember, quarantines are to keep those outside of its boundaries safe, not those within.

The New York Times: Quarantined Cruise Passengers Have Many Questions. Japan Has Few Answers.

— WHO has been heaping praise on China for its response to the crisis. And while other experts acknowledge the organization is in the tenuous position of not wanting to anger China enough that they break off relations, critics say the excessive compliments are setting a bad precedent about what a good pandemic response looks like.

The Wall Street Journal: The World Health Organization Draws Flak for Coronavirus Response

— Meanwhile, the coronavirus research filed is quite small. That’s because, despite the buzz these kinds of outbreaks create, eventually the world’s attention will be caught by a different shiny object and both the funding and interest in researching the virus will fade.

Stat: Fluctuating Funding and Flagging Interest Hurt Coronavirus Research


Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) got their wrists slapped by a powerful Nevada union this week for “viciously attacking” members and their families online. At the heart of the matter: The union had released information critical of Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan. The clash put Sanders — who denounced any harassment as “unacceptable” — in an awkward spot just before the Nevada caucuses next week.

Politico: Nevada Culinary Union Lays Into Sanders Supporters After Health Care Backlash


A new survey found that even when patients plan ahead, many are still hit with surprise medical bills, especially if they receive anesthesia during a procedure. With health care spending rising again (driven by high costs like the out-of-pocket price tag for an emergency room visit), the report is a reminder that the issue is likely to be top of mind with voters come November.

Meanwhile, lawmakers well aware of that fact are moving forward with legislation that would favor an arbitration method for dealing with the surprise costs. This strategy is favored by hospitals and providers, and not embraced by insurers.

Reuters: Surprise Surgery Bills Happen Even When Patients Plan Ahead

Modern Healthcare: House Committee Advances Provider-Friendly Surprise Billing Fix


In a little bit of breaking news, a federal appellate court just shut down CMS’ approval of Arkansas’ Medicaid work requirement. The panel upheld a lower-court ruling that found the requirements arbitrary and capricious.

Modern Healthcare: D.C. Circuit Nixes Arkansas Medicaid Work Requirement


Juul has vowed time and again that it hasn’t marketed its products to teenagers. But new revelations from a Massachusetts lawsuit that the vaping company bought ads on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network are challenging those promises.

The New York Times: Juul Bought Ads Appearing on Cartoon Network and Other Youth Sites, Suit Claims


The VA is no stranger to controversy, but the latest bout comes at a bad time for the agency. The abrupt firing of the agency’s well-liked undersecretary in combination with allegations that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sought to dig up dirt on a woman after she said she was sexually assaulted at a VA facility have shaken the agency just as it is preparing to launch an ambitious health plan.

The New York Times: Veterans Affairs, a Trump Signature Issue, Is Facing Turmoil Again

Meanwhile, Trump continued to downplay brain injuries sustained by troops from an Iran missile strike even as the number of cases jumped past 100.

The New York Times: More Than 100 Troops Have Brain Injuries From Iran Missile Strike, Pentagon Says


In the miscellaneous file for the week:

— It’s notoriously hard to get any gun measures passed … except these advocates seem to be having some success. Their strategy? Go hyper-local.

NBC News: How Moms Are Quietly Passing Gun Safety Policy Through School Boards

— What’s going on with the Equal Rights Amendment and why has it become a fight over abortion? Politico takes a deep dive into its history about how the battle around the amendment has shifted in the nearly 40 years since it was introduced.

Politico: How the Debate Over the ERA Became a Fight Over Abortion

— New parents eager to better balance family and work life in the only industrialized country in the world without a paid family leave policy have started bringing their babies to their offices.

Stateline: You Can Bring Your Baby to Work (But Wouldn’t You Rather Be at Home?)

— In another crushing disappointment, an Alzheimer’s drug that had sparked high hopes was the latest to fail to live up to expectations.

The Associated Press: Drugs Fail to Slow Decline in Inherited Alzheimer’s Disease


That’s it from me. And remember, if you ever feel like flexing your poetic muscles outside of Valentine’sDay, we accept haiku submissions year-round. Have a great weekend!

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