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.