Better Solutions for Healthcare

AXIOS Vitals: 1 big thing: America’s biggest hospitals vs. their patients

By Tina Reed

June 14, 2021

More than a quarter of the 100 U.S. hospitals with the highest revenue sued patients over unpaid medical bills between 2018 and mid-2020, according to new research by Johns Hopkins University provided exclusively to Axios.

Why it matters: The report suggests that, rather than being an anomaly, patient lawsuits are relatively common across the country and among the largest providers, Axios’ Caitlin Owens writes.

  • “Most hospitals do not engage in this form of predatory billing. But for the ones that are, it threatens the great public trust in the medical profession,” said Marty Makary, a lead researcher on the Johns Hopkins project.

The big picture: As patients have become increasingly responsible for higher out-of-pocket costs, some hospitals have responded to unpaid bills by taking patients to court.

  • Meanwhile, the cost of hospital care has continued to rise.
  • These “predatory billing practices” slowed down — but did not stop — during the pandemic, per the JHU researchers.

It’s unclear how much of the decrease was because of the pandemic, and how much was attributable to lasting changes in billing practices.
Details: The study found that 26 of the hospitals filed nearly 39,000 court actions against patients. This is likely an undercount, as some court records were inaccessible.

  • These court actions took the form of lawsuits, wage garnishments and personal property liens. Wage garnishments are court orders allowing hospitals to take part of a defendant’s paycheck, and a personal property lien is a legal claim that allows the holder to obtain access to an asset if a debt isn’t paid.