Better Solutions for Healthcare

NYT: One Hospital System Sued 2,500 Patients After Pandemic Hit

By Brian M. Rosenthal

January 5, 2021

When the coronavirus began spreading through New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered state-run hospitals to stop suing patients over unpaid medical bills, and almost all of the major private hospitals in the state voluntarily followed suit by suspending their claims.

But one chain of hospitals plowed ahead with thousands of lawsuits: Northwell Health, which is the state’s largest health system and is run by one of Mr. Cuomo’s closest allies.

The nonprofit Northwell sued more than 2,500 patients last year, records show, a flood of litigation even as the pandemic has led to widespread job losses and economic uncertainty.

The Northwell lawsuits each sought an average of $1,700 in unpaid bills, plus large interest payments. They hit teachers, construction workers, grocery store employees and others, including some who had lost work in the pandemic or gotten sick themselves.

“My salary was cut in half. I’m now working only two days a week. And now I have to deal with this,” said Carlos Castillo, a hotel worker in New York City who was sued for $4,043 after being hospitalized with a seizure at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, which is part of the Northwell system. Mr. Castillo, 37, said he was worried the hospital would seize his paychecks and leave him unable to pay rent.

After this article was published Tuesday morning, Northwell abruptly announced it would stop suing patients during the pandemic and would rescind all legal claims it filed in 2020.

Across the country, medical debt lawsuits have grown increasingly common in recent years, as health care costs have risen and insurance companies have shifted more of the burden onto patients through larger deductibles and co-payments. The cases are rarely contested in court and usually lead to default judgments, allowing hospitals to garnish wages and freeze accounts to extract money, sometimes without the patient’s knowledge.

Northwell had not been alone in pursuing debt through the courts during the pandemic. About 50 hospitals in New York have sued a total of 5,000 patients since March, according to a search of filings in courts around the state. Most are small and located upstate.

Northwell stood out because of the sheer number of its lawsuits — and because of its connections to Mr. Cuomo. The other major New York City hospital systems, including NewYork-Presbyterian and NYU Langone Health, have largely suspended lawsuits during the pandemic. It is unclear when they might begin suing again.