Investigative journalism that gets results

For the Christmas holiday, I thought I would post a good news story.

I am a financial supporter of the investigative journalism outfit ProPublica and today comes a news item that makes me glad that I am doing so. Some months ago, they had an expose of a nonprofit hospital affiliated with the Methodist church in Memphis, Tennessee that was suing poor people for not paying their bills, even going to the extent of garnishing their wages which is devastating for people who live paycheck to paycheck. The hospital was essentially using the courts as a collection agency by threatening people with severe legal penalties. Thanks to that expose, the hospital and the church was shamed into canceling the debts and in a follow up story today, we hear about the results, starting with the case of Danielle Robinson.

When Danielle Robinson got a letter in the mail from Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in October, she braced herself.

She’d missed a court-ordered payment to the hospital after she was laid off from her job in September.

In 2018, the massive nonprofit health care system sued her for just over $11,500 in unpaid hospital bills, plus $3,800 in attorney’s fees. In April, a Shelby County General Sessions Court judge ordered her to pay $150 per month toward the debt.

If she was lucky, the envelope contained only a warning. If she wasn’t, it was another attempt to garnish her paycheck, even though she wasn’t even getting one.

Nervously, she opened the letter. “As of August 1, 2019,” it said, “your total amount due is $0 for docket ROBINSON, and we have notified the court that this account has been paid in full.”

“I had to read it a couple of times just to make sure,” Robinson said. “I couldn’t believe it. I went crying around the house.”

Since July, the faith-based hospital system has erased at least $11.9 million in debts owed by Robinson and thousands of others like her, according to an analysis of Shelby County General Sessions Court records.

Methodist’s move was prompted by a June investigation by MLK50 and ProPublica into the hospital’s aggressive debt collection practices. From 2014 through 2018, Methodist sued more than 8,300 people for unpaid hospital bills, including many people who were low-income. The hospital, the city’s largest, garnished hundreds of workers’ paychecks, including those of its own employees.

Less than a week after the investigation was published, the hospital’s attorneys began dropping lawsuits from court dockets. By the end of July, the hospital had completed an internal review, pronounced itself “humbled,” announced an overhaul of its policies and started to erase the debts.

The article goes on to describe the hardships that other poor people went through as a result of the hospital’s aggressive collection tactics. Very often, the people went into debt because they had a sick child who needed treatment.

With a universal health care system like the Medicare for All that Bernie Sanders is proposing, the kind of nightmare that Robinson and so many like her went through would never happen.


  1. says

    Very often, the people went into debt because they had a sick child who needed treatment.

    WFT? Where I live, healthcare for children younger than 18 years old and pregnant women is 100% state funded. The idea being that a society cannot possibly allow any child to suffer because of their parents’ financial situation.

  2. says

    This makes me think of the opening scene in the film, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A farmer comes to the Finch house to drop off milk and eggs, slowly (and without speaking or smiling) paying off his legal debt. He doesn’t want to, but it’s the only means he has.

    One wouldn”t expect a hospital to take labour in exchange for a debt, but it’s obscene that a hospital’s only response is “payment in full NOW!”, with no attempt at all to find a reasonable solution. Those responsible deserve to be named and shamed, not just the hospital.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Andreas @#1,

    Welcome to the cruel and inhumane medical system in the US that the politicians here like to boast is the best in the world.

  4. jrkrideau says

    Here in Ontario I was charged CDN$45 for the ambulance that picked me up off the sidewalk and took me for the 7 week hospital stay. The hospital, for some reason, paid for the taxi home.

    Socialized medicine is horrible. Well, the food at the first hospital was pretty vile.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    In the UK, I was scraped off the side of a mountain, stabilised, drugged, loaded into a helicopter, taken to hospital, drugged some more, had my leg bones pulled back inside the skin, a titanium rod put down the tibia, two skins grafts to cover the holes, a month in the hospital and six months of physiotherapy. Total cost: £0. The food was OK.

  6. fentex says

    In New Zealand I had my tibia and fibula broken playing football -- picked up by a ambulance ,set and later when it didn’t heal properly, pinned), my mother had a motor cyclist crash head on into her car, later had three vertebrae broken, myeloma discovered, treated by six months of chemotherapy etc etc all for no charge, at all.

    For this we pay (as far as I can determine) about 3% more tax than we would in the U.S.

    Plus we have on average 3 ~ 4 years longer life expectancy than U.S citizens.

    U.S readers really need to demand better of their government.

  7. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 & 8 sonofrojblake
    Seriously the food really was pretty vile much of the time. Staff kept telling me how much better it would be when I moved to the rehab hospital. It was.

  8. Hans Tholstrup says

    I wonder whether there might be a further follow up to this story: perhaps this hospital will in future decline to treat people unless they can prove they are able to pay (?)

  9. Mano Singham says


    I suspect that in the near future at least, the hospital will be on their best behavior. Also ProPublican has a practice of doing follow up stories so I hope that keeps the hospital in check.

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