BALTIMORE — Two dozen community members demanded Monday that Johns Hopkins Hospital stop chasing after former hospital patients — most of them low-income — who still owe money for their treatment.
The Coalition for a Humane Hopkins, a community group that includes members of National Nurses United (NNU), a labor union for nurses, is “[calling] on Johns Hopkins Hospital to immediately suspend the filing of new medical debt lawsuits and drop current lawsuits against former and current patients,” the NNU said in a press release.
In particular, the protesters cited what they said was “harassment” of former patient Lakesha Spence, whose last $152 the hospital garnished from her bank account in April. Spence went to court to get her money returned and the judge ruled in her favor, but Hopkins sought a second garnishment, and Spence found out last week that money had again been taken from her account.
“As nurses we take our responsibility as patient advocates seriously and that advocacy does not end when our patients leave the hospital,” Meredith Zoltick, a registered nurse at Johns Hopkins, said in a statement. “We are saying enough is enough to the exploitative practice of suing low-income patients which causes unnecessary suffering, hardship, and distress and discourages people from seeking the care they need.”
“To think that Johns Hopkins would go after Lakesha Spence after the court already found seizing her assets would cause undue financial harm is unconscionable. This is a bully tactic designed to silence those who are seeking to change Johns Hopkins’ morally abhorrent behavior,” Rev. Ty Hullinger, a pastor at three Catholic parishes in Baltimore and a member of the Coalition for a Humane Hopkins, said in the statement.
The coalition presented a letter — as well as petitions signed by more than 1,000 people — to the presidents of the hospital, Johns Hopkins Health System and Johns Hopkins Medicine. The letter demanded that the hospital suspend the filing of medical debt lawsuits and drop all current medical debt lawsuits against patients; review prior cases in order to reimburse those patients who have been billed more than they should have paid; and screen all patients for charity care eligibility at admissions and increase signage and notifications about charity care.
A report released in May by the coalition, the NNU, and the AFL-CIO found that since 2009, the hospital filed more than 2,400 lawsuits in Maryland courts seeking the repayment of $4.8 million in alleged medical debt from former patients, with a median amount of $1,438. The numbers came from a review of thousands of electronic case dockets and hundreds of case files. Many of these lawsuits seek to recover only the amount outstanding after insurance coverage is applied, including Medicare and Medicaid, the report noted. Looking at sampled postal zip codes of cases involving patients who lived in a 3-mile radius of the hospital, researchers found that 86% of patients for whom demographics were known were African American.
These patients “often are working people who already are likely to struggle with debt in the hundreds or thousands of dollars,” the report said. “These lawsuits can exacerbate existing personal financial hardship and often have dire consequences for patients and their families.”
When asked to comment, Johns Hopkins spokesperson Kim Hoppe sent a statement saying that “It is always our priority to provide the best possible care to every patient who comes to us. We have an extraordinary community benefits program, and it is our policy to inform our patients about our programs for free and discounted services. For patients who choose not to pursue those options or who have a demonstrated ability to pay, we will still make every effort to reach out to them and to accommodate their schedule and needs. In those rare occasions when a patient who has the ability to pay chooses not to, we then honor our obligation as a hospital in the state of Maryland, with its unique payer model, to pursue reimbursement.”
Regarding Spence, she continued, “Patient privacy laws prevent us from sharing information about any patient even acknowledging whether someone sought care with us. However, every patient who receives services is provided information about the availability of financial assistance and charity care and every effort is made to reach out to our patients in the event of billing issues and to accommodate any special circumstances that would affect their ability to pay.”