(The Center Square) – Dozens of Atrium Health facilities in North Carolina are no longer suing patients over medical debt following a policy change this month, a move Treasurer Dale Folwell believes is “a little too little, a little too late.”
Atrium Health revised its billing and collection policy on Oct. 1 to end its practice of pursuing small claims for medical debts to $5,000, and suing patients who owe more than that. Atrium Health said it made the decision nearly a year ago when it merged with Advocate Aurora Health to create Advocate Health, a massive six-state network of 67 hospitals with $27 billion in annual revenue.
“Their response is unbelievable when you look at the fact it took them almost a year to even post the policy on their website and only after the media started to shine light on their egregious policies,” Folwell wrote in an emailed statement to The Center Square.
The Center Square was among the media he referenced.
“It’s a little too little, a little too late for the thousands of people who have already had their lives and livelihoods ruined because they got sick,” he wrote. “Patients are still under siege as too many hospitals are hiding their prices, overcharging patients and then ‘kneecapping’ them with lawsuits that inflict generational damage on a family’s finances.”
Atrium Health did not answer a series of questions on the change from The Center Square. It did reply a prepared statement.
“Atrium Health is continuously evaluating how we can best serve our patients and ensure equity in access to high quality care for all members of our communities. As part of our journey in making health care more affordable, and in advance of our combination, we stopped filing liens in November 2022 as a means of collecting unpaid debts owed by patients,” the statement read, referring to the merger.
“As part of the third-largest nonprofit health system in the country, we are working to align and unify our policies throughout our enterprise to offer best-in-class financial assistance programs for those most at risk communities we serve,” according to the statement. “We expect to have more specific details in the months ahead.”
A report from Folwell’s office in August produced in collaboration with researchers at Duke University Law showed Atrium Health and four other health systems collectively sued 7,500 patients over past due medical bills that produced $57.3 million in judgements between January 2017 and June 2022. Atrium was the most aggressive, accounting for almost 2,500 lawsuits.
Patients interviewed by state officials included a 70-year-old North Carolina couple billed more than $91,000 for a heart surgery that ballooned to $192,384 with interest charged by Atrium Health. Another involved a 66-year-old cancer patient who was forced to fight a $60,000 lien on her condo filed by Atrium while in recovery.
One in five North Carolina families are in medical debt collections, while eastern North Carolina in particular is home to some of the highest concentrations of medical debt in collections in the nation.
In Greene, Lenoir, Tyrell, and Duplin counties, between 38% and 44% of residents have medical debt in collections – about three times the national average.
“Quite often, these are the most vulnerable citizens in our state,” Folwell said in August. “These patients can’t even see the prices they are paying before consuming the product.”
Atrium’s statement to The Center Square contends the company has “a generous financial assistance policy, with free and reduced-price care available for those who qualify. An average of 400 patients each day are pre-qualified for financial assistance and never receive a bill for the care we provide, totaling over $484 million each year.”
“These lawsuits have resulted in the biggest transfer of wealth of our lifetime – especially from lower- and fixed-income people – to these multibillion-dollar corporations who disguise themselves as nonprofits,” Folwell wrote in response on Monday. “It’s time that the Board of Trustees take responsibility for their actions and appoint members who represent the average citizen.”