Wisconsin hospitals suing patients over debt amid pandemic
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — When her doorbell rang on Sunday night, March 29, Blanche Jordan was just starting a new Game of Thrones puzzle on her living room floor.
Jordan, 39, is a breast-cancer survivor who is taking social distancing seriously, so she put on a mask before opening the door. A woman handed Jordan a paper and said: “You’ve been served.”
The paper was a court summons that said Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, Inc. was suing Jordan for $7,150. Just three weeks before, Jordan had paid off a different $5,000-plus Froedtert debt linked to a hysterectomy that her insurance did not cover.
A lawsuit was the last thing Jordan expected during a viral pandemic.
“This lady came to my door. She didn’t have a mask on. She didn’t have gloves. And she looked at me like I’m crazy because I had a mask across my face,” said Jordan, who lives in Milwaukee and works as a caregiver at an assisted living facility outside of the city. “I’m high-risk,” she said.
Life in Wisconsin, as in the rest of the country, has been transformed by COVID-19 in the past weeks. Wisconsin declared a public health emergency on March 12, yet firms representing health systems in the state continued to sue patients over medical debt.
The nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Watch provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.
Jordan is one of at least 46 people sued by Froedtert in small claims court since March 12. Those cases are among at least 148 similar suits filed statewide by health systems over the same period, according to an analysis of small claims cases by Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch.
Steve Schooff, a spokesman for the hospital, said on March 31st that Froedtert “suspended filing small claims suits” as of March 18 in response to COVID-19.
“In addition, we continue to work with patients related to financial counseling and are allowing patients with financial hardship who are on a payment plan to defer payments while financial assistance is discussed with them,” he said.
Yet court records at the time showed at least 18 lawsuits filed on the hospital’s behalf since March 18th, including 15 filed on March 31 alone. (The suit against Jordan was filed on March 17.) All 18 of those cases have since been dismissed.
The lawsuit against Jordan remains open.
Court records show that at least seven additional health systems have also sued patients during the pandemic.
Dean Health Systems Inc. in Madison, which is owned by SSM Health, filed 43 small claims suits against patients after Evers declared a public health emergency. UW Health in Madison has filed 19 lawsuits since that date. Marshfield Clinic, which covers northern, central and western Wisconsin, has filed at least 14. It is followed by Bellin Health, based in Green Bay (11); La Crosse-based Gundersen Health System (10); and Aspirus Grand View Health System, which serves parts of northern Wisconsin (3). Froedtert South, which serves southeastern Wisconsin, also filed two suits.
SSM Health, which owns hospitals and clinics across Wisconsin, is “in the process of evaluating our policies,” spokeswoman Kim Sveum said in an email. “SSM Health is first and foremost attending to the needs of our patients and community in response to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.”
Sveum noted that its lawsuits were filed before Evers closed schools and issued his March 24 Safer at Home order. SSM Health is “working to pause many cases,” Sveum said, but she did not offer specific details.
Bellin chief operating officer and chief financial officer Jim Dietsche said in an interview that the health system ceased legal actions on debt collection on March 18, and that the nine suits filed since then were “an error and we apologize for that,” adding those nine cases “have been dismissed and those communications have been sent.”
The five other systems contacted for this story said they have since paused certain legal actions.
Tom Russell, a UW Health spokesman, said the health system instructed its legal agencies on March 26 “to cease pursuit of any legal activity.”
“These should be stopped for now,” he said.
In an April 1 email, Tom Duncan, vice president and chief operating officer for Froedtert South, wrote that his system has generally “suspended filing small claim suits” during the pandemic. “However, in rare circumstances, certain small claim suits may be filed to preserve Froedtert South rights. For example: If a medical debt has been in existence for six years, and the statute of limitations is about to end.”
Froedtert South filed its most recent medical debt lawsuit on April 8, court records show.
One Madison resident described being “mortified” when a process server knocked on her family’s door on March 28 to serve papers for a UW Health lawsuit over $1,135.90 in medical debt. UW Health filed that lawsuit before March 26. In a phone interview, the resident asked not to be named in this story because she was embarrassed by the debt related to her husband’s heart condition.
“I couldn’t believe someone would do that,” she said about receiving legal papers during a pandemic. “They’re our bills, but really? In the middle of all of this?”
The woman said her husband offered the process server sympathy, apologizing that the man had to serve papers during a public health emergency.
The woman, who works for a Madison-based nonprofit, saw things differently. “That’s a choice, too. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”
Some hospitals have stopped the practice of suing patients following investigative reporting by Kaiser Health News, MLK50, ProPublica and other outlets.
Jessica Roulette, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, which provides free legal services to low-income people, said medical bills often fall below things like rent, utilities and food in the “hierarchy of bills and obligations.” Most people facing hospital lawsuits are working and “underinsured,” with plans that leave them on the hook for thousands of dollars in health bills, she added.
Bobby Peterson, executive director of ABC for Health, a nonprofit public-interest law firm in Madison, called it stressful under normal circumstances to face a medical debt lawsuit.
“Today it’s a whole new ballgame,” he said, referring to workers who have lost their jobs and possibly health insurance during the pandemic.
Peterson saw a possible disconnect between some hospitals’ recent decisions to stop suing and the law firms they’ve retained.
“Are the hospitals communicating their own policies internally? And are they communicating with their hired guns out there, making sure that they back off?” Peterson asked.
Evers signed an emergency order temporarily banning evictions and foreclosures on March 27. When asked on an April 3rd press call whether Evers would consider taking similar actions on medical debt collection, Ryan Nilsestuen, his chief legal counsel, said his office was looking into it.
“There is a fairly significant difference between debt collection and an eviction ban,” Nilsestien said. Evicting somebody from their home “runs completely contrary” to public health guidelines to stay at home, Nilsestuen added. Medical debt collection is “significantly different.”
The state of Wisconsin considers Blanche Jordan, the Milwaukee caregiver, an “essential” worker during the pandemic, meaning her job is not subject to the Safer At Home order. She works five days each week at an assisted living facility from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., alternating work on the weekends. The pay — $15.75 per hour — barely covers her expenses.
Rent, health insurance, utilities and the nearly $300 in garnishments by Froedtert that recently ended, left Jordan with little of her $1,300 biweekly paycheck to spend on other necessities. She filed for bankruptcy in 2016 when, despite being insured, she said she could no longer afford to pay off her debts from treating her aggressive breast cancer.
That journey briefly left her homeless following an eviction, but she generally manages to pay her current landlord on time, Jordan said.
“I’m blessed to have a landlord that’s understanding because his wife died of breast cancer,” she said.
Jordan said her most recent medical debt stemmed from a hysterectomy that was separate from but related to her cancer treatment. She chose Froedtert to perform the procedure, considering it “the best hospital that we have in Wisconsin.”
What she did not realize, she said: Froedtert did not accept her insurance, which she purchased on a federal exchange created by the Affordable Care Act. Hospital administrators accepted and ran her insurance card, Jordan said, but never mentioned that her insurer would not cover the procedure.
In 2019, a judge in the Milwaukee County Small Claims Commissioner Court awarded Froedtert a judgment against Jordan for about $5,300, including court fees, which the hospital claimed by garnishment of her wages. She finished paying that debt during the first week of March — only to be served papers for the alleged $7,150 debt three weeks later.
Jordan assumes this covers the remainder of the bill for her hysterectomy, which she remembers totaling around $12,000. Wisconsin caps small claims at $10,000.
She will eventually see her day in court, although it’s not clear when. The coronavirus postponed her court date to May 28, assuming court proceedings resume by then.
Until then, Jordan will continue to take care of people at the assisted living facility, and she will otherwise stay isolated at home, she said, likely playing Scrabble or Uno with her family.