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Thousands in NC drown in medical debt while being sued by hospitals that cared for them

NORTH CAROLINA — Thousands of families across North Carolina are drowning in medical debt while facing lawsuits from the hospitals they went to for care.

A new study found in the last five years, hospitals have filed more than 5,000 lawsuits against more than 7,000 patients in North Carolina. In some cases, people lost their cars and even their homes for failing to make payments.

Channel 9’s Dan Matics spoke with Jonathan Floren, who said he had to have emergency surgery and is now afraid he could lose everything.

Every medical bill Floren has opened over the last year brings him nothing but anguish and a dollar figure he says he’ll never be able to pay.

“Here’s one for $170,098,” he showed Matics.

Floren had heart surgery at Atrium Health in late 2021. He said he found out after the surgery his insurance wouldn’t help because of a pre-existing condition. That left him stuck with a medical bill totaling more than $220,000.

“I’m very fearful. I’m fearful that I’m going to wake up and I’m going to be sued,” Floren said.

“I was told by an attorney that they can do that, and they do it all the time,” he added.

A first-of-its-kind study from researchers at Duke University and the state treasurer’s office shows it’s happening to thousands of North Carolinians.

From January 2017 through June 2022, North Carolina hospitals brought 5,900 lawsuits to collect medical debt against more than 7,500 patients and family members. In some cases, liens were put on their homes.

The study showed Atrium Health, the largest health system in the state, was the most litigious. Atrium denied that they file lawsuits against patients, but researchers say that is misleading because while a third-party collection agency might file the suit, Atrium is still listed as a plaintiff.

Atrium told Matics they never turn away anyone needing medical care. They said in 2021, they provided nearly $2.5 billion in free care. Atrium also said they have 150 employees dedicated to working with people who need assistance paying their bill.

Sara Greene is a professor of law at Duke and worked on the study.

“The big takeaway here is we have a system where hospitals are suing patients for bills that are confusing, unclear and then once there are judgments against a patient, there’s an astronomically high interest rates of 8%,” she said.

Efforts to lower that interest rate are moving slowly through the legislature. Floren said that’s a start but told Matics he’s already lost hope.

“I want this to be fair,” he said. “I’m 58 years old and I don’t want to be bankrupt.”

>> Read the full statement from Atrium Health at the bottom of this story.

Advice from Action 9

People tell Action 9′s Jason Stoogenke about their medical bills often.

Stoogenke said the Affordable Care Act requires certain hospitals to offer what’s called “charity care.” Make sure you ask about that.

If you’re a veteran, you may be eligible for help not available to other patients, so ask the VA about financial hardship assistance.

You can always try to negotiate. Even if the provider refuses to budge on the bill, maybe he or she will work with you on a payment plan you can handle.

Don’t forget, if a debt collector came after you for doctor bills and you paid it, it no longer impacts your credit score. If you haven’t paid it, you now have six more months before it is reported to the credit reporting agencies.

For consumer assistance programs in North Carolina, click here. For consumer assistance programs in South Carolina, click here.

To reach the VA Health Resource Center, call 866-400-1238.


Full statement from Atrium Health:

“With over 15 million patient interactions each year, Atrium Health has the privilege of caring for each community member in a way that is personalized for their specific needs. Atrium Health doesn’t turn away anyone needing medical care, regardless of their ability or inability to pay for their care. In 2021 alone, we provided $2.46 billion in free and uncompensated care and other community benefits.

“When patients accumulate bills and need help, and we are provided with the proper information, we can help them select plans or programs that could help them resolve – and eliminate – their debt. In fact, an average of 275 patients each day never receive a bill for the care they received, totaling over $437 million each year. We recognize that each patient’s financial situation can change quickly or over time and we have over 150 teammates dedicated to working with them to determine if financial assistance is available for their specific scenario. This can be in the form of full or partial forgiveness of balances, discounts or establishing an interest-free payment plan that works for the patient. As a current practice, Atrium Health does not file any lawsuits against patients, nor do we execute on any liens or foreclose on property that were filed previously.”

(WATCH BELOW: 9 Investigates: The problem of medical debt for people across Charlotte)

Dan Matics

Dan Matics, wsoctv.com

Dan is a reporter and anchor for Channel 9.

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