A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that Northwest Hospital & Medical Center fails to properly screen patients eligible for charity care under state law, instead sending their debt to collection agencies.
Northwest Hospital & Medical Center fails to properly screen poor patients eligible for charity care, instead sending their debts for collection in violation of state law, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The suit, filed in King County Superior Court, seeks damages on behalf of two low-income men who sought emergency services at Northwest, which is operated by UW Medicine. It also seeks to stop others from receiving similar treatment.
Instead of determining that the men — including one with health insurance — were eligible for reduced rates under the Washington state Charity Care Act, the suit says, Northwest officials sent their debt to collection agencies, allowing their wages to be garnished.
It’s a problem that has the potential to affect about 134,000 patients in Northwest’s service area who have incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $48,600 for a family of four — the level eligible for charity care, said Matt Geyman, a lawyer for Columbia Legal Services, which filed the suit.
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“The problem is too many patients in need of charity care aren’t getting it,” Geyman told reporters Tuesday.
Northwest Hospital officials said they learned of the lawsuit Tuesday and are investigating details.
“Northwest Hospital has always been committed to providing treatment to patients regardless of their ability to pay,” officials said in a statement. “We have financial counselors who work closely with our patients to help investigate all payment sources that might be available including Medicaid and charity care.”
The suit names Kamal Amireh, a 55-year-old Seattle cabdriver who was uninsured when he sought care for vertigo at Northwest Hospital in December 2013, and Hugo Cabrera Villalobos, in his early 30s, who went to the emergency room after his arm was pinned under a trailer in February 2015.
Villalobos, a cook who lives in Shoreline, had Premera Blue Cross health insurance through his employer, but it didn’t cover the full cost of his care, the complaint said.
In both cases, staff at Northwest Hospital failed to screen the patients to see if they met income guidelines and other requirements of the charity-care law first enacted in 1989, the complaint alleges.
When Amireh didn’t pay his debt of nearly $4,000, it was sent to a collection agency. He said he asked Northwest workers whether he could receive charity care, but a hospital official said it was “too late,” the complaint states.
In Villalobos’ case, his portion of the debt amounted to $1,400. That bill also was sent for collection.
In both instances, the men’s wages were garnished, depriving their families of income, the lawyers said.
The suit seeks damages for the men and others in their situation and to halt Northwest from demanding payment from uninsured or underinsured patients without first screening them to determine whether they qualify for financial help.
Northwest’s service area includes 639,000 people, including 21 percent who are at or below federal poverty levels, a hospital analysis indicated.
Officials said the hospital provided more than $7.3 million in charity care during the last fiscal year.