Shaming hospitals to do the right thing

A ProPublica report from back in June exposed the fact that a nonprofit hospital system in Memphis, Tennessee that was affiliated with the Methodist church had been aggressively suing poor people who had not been able to pay their bills. It had created its own aggressive debt-collection agency that had gone to the extent of garnishing the wages (i.e., deducting money from paychecks) of those who owed money, even though the money they were earning was barely enough for them to live.

In July 2007, Carrie Barrett went to the emergency room at Methodist University Hospital, complaining of shortness of breath and tightness in her chest. Her leg was swollen, she’d later recall, and her toes were turning black.

Given her family history, high blood pressure and newly diagnosed congestive heart failure, doctors performed a heart catheterization, threading a long tube through her groin and into her heart.

Her share of the two-night stay: $12,019.

Barrett, who has never made more than $12 an hour, doesn’t remember getting any notices to pay from the hospital. But in 2010, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare sued her for the unpaid medical bills, plus attorney’s fees and court costs.

Since then, the nonprofit hospital system affiliated with the United Methodist Church has doggedly pursued her, adding interest to the debt seven times and garnishing money from her paycheck on 15 occasions.

Barrett, 63, now owes about $33,000, more than twice what she earned last year, according to her tax return.

She’s among thousands of patients the massive hospital has sued for unpaid medical bills. From 2014 through 2018, Methodist filed more than 8,300 lawsuits, according to an MLK50-ProPublica analysis of Shelby County General Sessions Court records.

Thanks to that expose and the outrage directed at the hospital system for tis cruel treatment of poor people, they have now canceled the debts.

The dramatic shift was prompted by an MLK50-ProPublica investigation that revealed that Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare filed more than 8,300 debt lawsuits from 2014 through 2018, including against its own employees. Methodist had doggedly pursued low-income defendants who had little ability to pay, often garnishing their meager paychecks.

For now, it appears that Methodist is no longer using the courts as a collection agency, a practice that was roundly criticized by health care experts, some elected officials and members of the United Methodist Church, with which Methodist is affiliated. Since July 3, the hospital has not filed any new debt collection lawsuits or garnishment attempts.

Nonprofit hospitals are generally exempt from local, state and federal taxes. In return, the federal government expects them to provide a significant community benefit, including charity care and financial assistance.

Methodist, which operates five hospitals in Shelby County, does provide some charity care — but experts faulted it for its aggressive collections practices in a city where nearly 1 in 4 residents live below the poverty line.

Its handling of poor patients began with a financial assistance policy that, unlike many of its peers around the country, all but ignored patients with any form of health insurance, no matter their out-of-pocket costs. If they were unable to afford their bills, patients then faced what experts said is rare: A licensed collection agency owned by the hospital.

These nonprofits pose as model citizens of the community and are thus susceptible to shame and pressure. They also risk losing their lucrative nonprofit status if they act like any other predatory business.

This is why investigative journalism by outfits like ProPublica that can shine light on such abuses is so important and why I support them financially.


  1. jrkrideau says

    I just took a bad fall, inurred a spinal cord injury. I was in an acute care hospital and then transferred to specialized rehab hospital. So far 4 weeks hospitalized and, probably at least another 4 weeks to go.

    Luckily I live in Canada. Total out-of-pocket expenses “$0.00” so far though I nearly had to pay for a haircut.

    Oh, the horrors of “socialized” single payer medicine.

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