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Northwell Health rescinds more than 2,500 patient medical bill lawsuits

Northwell reportedly sued thousands of patients last year for unpaid medical bills averaging $1,700.

Mallory Hackett, Associate Editor

New York City-based Northwell Health is putting a pause on all legal filings and rescinding claims from 2020 following a New York Times article that claimed the health system sued thousands of patients for unpaid medical bills.

The Times reported on Tuesday that Northwell sued more than 2,500 patients last year for unpaid medical bills averaging $1,700. Some of the legal claims were for bills as small as $700, the article said.

At the start of the pandemic, Northwell imposed a six-month-long pause on legal filings from April to September. The lawsuits referenced by The Times are from medical incidents before the COVID-19 pandemic, said Barbara Osborn, Northwell's VP of public relations in a statement released to Healthcare Finance News.

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Still, given the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, the health system has extended the pause on legal filings and will rescind any legal claims that were filed in 2020, Osborn said.

WHY THIS MATTERS

Taking legal action against patients is a rarity for Northwell and happens for less than 0.1% of claims, according to Osborn.

"We only file lawsuits against patients when they have been unresponsive to multiple outreach attempts and after extensive research shows they have the strong ability to pay," she said. "We also don't pursue legal action against patients who are on Medicaid, over 65 years old, unemployed, disabled or serving in the military."

She also pointed out that the health system offers financial assistance for patients with household incomes up to 500% of the federal poverty level.

Many hospitals, which have already been struggling financially during the pandemic, have been unable to collect on claims to get the money they are owed because consumers have also been facing financial hardship.

Rising costs of care have resulted in more Americans struggling to pay their medical bills. In fact, 56%, or 137.1 million adults in the U.S., reported having medical financial hardship in a survey published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

With more medical debt comes more debt collection lawsuits, and from 1993 to 2013, the number of debt collection suits more than doubled nationwide, from less than 1.7 million to about 4 million, according to a Pew Research Center study.

"Medical debt can be particularly devastating and accounts for more than half of all collections activity," the study said.

THE LARGER TREND

As one of the largest healthcare providers in the state, Northwell has carried a significant burden in fighting COVID-19. To assist in its efforts, the system developed a predictive tool that can anticipate a spike in COVID-19 cases at its hospitals by mining user data patterns from its Northwell.edu website.

It also added real-time bed visibility to its 19 facilities through a partnership with TeleTracking Technologies to give the network the ability to see all available beds across its facilities.

In addition to fighting the pandemic within its own community, Northwell also sent 12 nurses to Michigan-based Henry Ford Health System to help clinicians there care for a rising number of patients suffering from COVID-19. The move is a part of an alliance that enables participating organizations to swiftly increase staffing capacity through temporary staff sharing.

Twitter: @HackettMallory
Email the writer: mhackett@himss.org