During the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans lost their jobs or their incomes plummeted and struggled to make ends meet.
Although public hospitals are explicitly banned by the government, some private hospitals still “fall into the well” and take the opportunity to sue patients for default on medical expenses and forcibly withdraw their wages.
Some people are “on the verge of bankruptcy”.
The New York Times revealed on the 5th local time that Northwell Health, the largest private and non-profit medical network in New York, sued at least 2,500 patients who defaulted on medical bills last year, including coronavirus patients.
The article said that despite widespread unemployment and economic uncertainty caused by the epidemic, the agency still recovered an average of $1,700 in medical expenses from each lawsuit and charged expensive interest.
This has hit teachers, construction workers, grocery store employees, and “people who have lost their jobs due to the epidemic and even infected themselves”.
A New York City hotel employee was sued by Jewish Health Group for not repaying the hospitalization of $4,043.
He complained that his income was “halved” and only went to work two days a week. Once the hospital “confiscates” the payroll, it will be unable to pay the rent.
A grocery store clerk, Buckley, was also sued for $21,028 and also had to repay about $4,000 in interest and other expenses.
He, who had three children, complained that he was “on the verge of bankruptcy” and that “if they confiscated my payroll, I would have nothing left”.
Buckley’s 22-year-old daughter was also taken 10% of the salary of the Jewish Health Group as a repayment.
The New York Times said that in recent years, it has become more and more common for hospitals in the United States to sue for arrears of treatment. On the one hand, the price of health insurance has risen and insurance companies have passed on more burdens to patients.
On the other hand, the court basically supported hospitals in its judgment, allowing them to draw compensation directly from the defendant’s wages and even freeze their bank accounts. Many times, patients “don’t even know that their money has been transferred”.
In March last year, New York Governor Cuomo asked public hospitals to suspend the prosecution of patients who default on medical expenses.
The vast majority of the state’s large private hospitals also voluntarily complied with regulations at that time, but the Jewish Health Group did not join. At least two private medical groups began to resume prosecution in the summer.
A total of 50 hospitals in the state have prosecuted 5,000 patients since March last year, according to court records in New York State.
Half of them are initiated by Jewish Health Group, involving amounts as small as $700 and as large as $31,340.
In the long run, this medical group is also a “big money collection”. New York non-profit hospitals filed at least 40,000 lawsuits against patients who owe fees, according to the New York non-governmental organization Community Service Association, from 2015 to 2019.
About one-third of them come from Jewish health groups, with nearly 14,000 cases. At the same time, the group operates 23 hospitals, accounting for only about one-tenth of the total number of hospitals in New York State.
It is worth noting that Michael Dowling, CEO of Jewish Health Group, has a close relationship with Cuomo.
The two have known each other for many years. Dowling served as Cuomo’s father, deputy secretary to former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, and the state health secretary.
During the epidemic, Dowlin won Cuomo’s trust and arranged many hospital industry collective meetings and sent a message to Cuomo.
He also worked with the state government to study the improvement of bed utilization, antibody testing, etc., and also often attended Cuomo’s epidemic press conferences.
Last year, Jewish Health Group received $12.5 billion in revenue and $1.2 billion in subsidies from the federal government.
Last month, Richard Miller, the group’s chief business strategy officer, defended the practice of prosecuting patients that hospitals “have the right to recover the debt.” We are not interested in lawsuits…but they (patients) leave us with no choice.”
Miller revealed that Jewish Health Group still lost $300 million last year. Moreover, the lawsuit only targets patients who have jobs and are considered capable but evade repayment, and the arrears occurred in the months or even years before the outbreak of the epidemic. That is to say, it does not include coronavirus patients.
But this is inconsistent with the statement mentioned in the New York Times that “the affected people include unemployment or even self-infection due to the epidemic”.
News of COVID-19 patients refusing to seek medical treatment due to high costs of testing and treatment in the United States is also uncommon. Even if there is a non-profit organization, the average cost of treatment for patients covered by medical insurance is about $9,800; the average cost of uninsured patients for six days of hospitalization is $73,000.
Elizabeth Benjamin, vice president of the Community Service Association’s medical program, believes that even if the hundreds of dollars of treatment fees owed a few years ago, hospitals should not file a lawsuit at this time, because it means that “some people will starve and children can’t afford coats in winter”.
Last year, Democratic state lawmakers in New York tried to push forward legislation to limit the window of time for hospitals to sue patients and the ceiling on interest.
But they acknowledged that legislation was unlikely to pass because the medical industry was “very powerful” in Albany (the capital of New York State).
After the New York Times article was published on the morning of the 5th local time, the Jewish health group suddenly announced that it would stop prosecuting patients who owed money during the epidemic and withdrew all lawsuits initiated last year.
The agency and the New York Governor’s Office did not respond to media requests for comment.