Dozens face judges for patient debt each month

Debt from hospital services constitutes a large portion of cases that cross county judges’ desks. File photo. Debt from hospital services constitutes a large portion of cases that cross county judges’ desks. File photo.

Ron Cooper is a graduate of the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, and recently relocated to Charlottesville to practice law. Twice a month, Cooper will sit in on city and county court cases, drawing on local experts’ input and his own legal background to bring you C-VILLE’s new legal page, Court Squared. 

Most Thursday afternoons shortly before 1pm, people begin to file into the entrance hallway of the General District Court for Albemarle County. While courthouses are generally not known for their jovial atmosphere, the many distressed faces and terse conversations stem from the same anxiety: outstanding debt.

Debt from hospital services constitutes a large portion of cases that cross county judges’ desks. During civil docket call, the County Court hears from former UVA Medical Center or Martha Jefferson patients who have failed to pay their bill from previous hospital services, often because they simply can’t afford it. In fiscal year 2013 alone, UVA filed roughly 700 lawsuits a month in the court. Martha Jefferson can file upwards of 70 lawsuits a month on average. Most of these cases can be settled without going to trial, but should you ever find yourself unable to pay off a hospital bill or on the receiving end of a debt summons to appear in court, here are a few things to consider.

When should I expect to receive a court summons? 

UVA Health System spokesman Eric Swensen said legal action is an option when patients who are able to settle up do not respond to the hospital’s multiple requests for payment, so you won’t likely receive a summons after only one statement of outstanding debt. Patients receive up to five statements over a six month period before UVA takes legal action, and Martha Jefferson patients have a minimum of 120 days, and usually four statements, to pay their bills.

How will the hospitals help me out?  

• Martha Jefferson and UVA both work to qualify inquiring patients for financial assistance through programs like Medicaid and Social Security Disability benefits.

• Approximately 7.4 percent of UVA patients receive charity care, and about 95 percent of those pay only a $6 copay for their services.

• Family Access to Medical Insurance Security (FAMIS) provides health insurance coverage to qualifying kids up to age 19 who don’t qualify for Medicaid.

Hospital officials emphasized the importance of communicating about your finances and asking for help to avoid going to court.

“If a patient is open with us, we can typically help them with their individual situations and work out a solution that is beneficial to everyone involved,” said Director of Finance at Martha Jefferson Deb Thexton.

What are my options at docket call? 

As the defendant, you have the right to contest or admit the charge. At this stage of the proceeding, if you dispute the claim, the court cannot order you to pay anything, and will set a trial date. If you accept the charge, you’re telling the court that you do owe the money and that you don’t have a viable defense as to why you’ve failed to pay. However, you’re still free to try and establish a repayment plan that suits both you and the hospital. If you have an existing plan, you can speak with a hospital representative to modify or extend that plan. A UVA representative attends these hearings for such situations.

What should I know about trial? 

There are several costs involved with trial, like filing fees, lost work wages for time spent in court, and attorney’s fees if you hire a lawyer. Proceeding to trial may be the wrong gamble if you’re merely attempting to prolong the available payment period. In any event, if you are unsure about going to trial you may want to consult with an attorney.

What if I don’t come to court? 

Your version of events goes untold and the court will order you to pay the remaining balance of the debt. If you disregard this judgment order, the court will garnish your wages or order a lien that will give the hospital the right to make a claim on your property.

Law Star: Rebecca Hryvniak, Associate Attorney at Scott Kroner PLC 

What type of law do you practice? 

I am a general practitioner with a focus on elder law (including estate planning, estate administration, special needs trusts, and guardianship/conservatorship litigation), debtor and creditor rights, civil litigation, and general business law.

Do you have other local civil involvement? 

I was a member of the 2012 Leadership Charlottesville class and was a team member working with the Charlottesville Fire Department on our class project increasing the local awareness of Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs). I have assisted pro bono clients with estate planning and other legal transactions.

What is the biggest legal challenge for hospitals after unpaid bills?

Hospitals face a real challenge trying to balance their obligation to provide health care services to those in need with the reality that the costs of providing these services are significant and the portion of these costs covered by insurers and the government is declining; if a hospital cannot cover its costs then it will not be able to provide services to anyone. I think that hospitals, generally speaking, are more flexible than many other creditors in working out payment terms and often forgo collecting certain amounts (interest and attorney’s fees, for example) that they are legally and contractually permitted to recover.—Ron Cooper