Washington state law requires hospitals to screen patients for financial need before demanding payment. But that doesn’t always happen. Now courts are paying attention.
A ruling against Yakima Regional Medical and Cardiac Center highlights the problem.
About four years ago, Angela Lopez went to the Yakima hospital for surgery and was told she had to put down a $1,000 deposit before she could be scheduled.
Lopez is poor. She has no insurance and speaks little English. It took a month before her family could come up with the money.
After the surgery, Lopez couldn’t pay her bill, and it was sent to a collection agency. That’s when she turned to Andrea Schmidt, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services.
“Hospitals are required to screen patients for financial need before they ask for money from them,” she said.
Also, by law, hospitals are required to provide information about their charity-care policies upfront. Lopez wasn’t aware of that. Schmidt says the hospital was trying to turn poor people away.
“We have an email from the very top of the company that refers to a plan to ‘stem the tide of indigent patients coming to the hospitals,’” Schmidt says.
Schmidt says the hospital rewarded staff with bonuses for collecting deposits.
Eventually Lopez applied for and was granted charity care. But Yakima Regional wouldn’t return her deposit. Schmidt says what happened to Lopez is not an isolated situation. The case has been granted class-action status, and a lower court judge ruled Dec. 14 that the hospital violated the state’s Charity Care Act.
An attorney for Yakima Regional did not respond to requests for comment.
Yakima Regional is a for-profit hospital that was owned by Health Management Associates when the lawsuit was filed in 2013.
HMA was bought out by Community Health Systems, an out-of-state, for-profit company. It has implemented new charity care policies and posted the information with the Department of Health.