By Consumers for Quality Care, on September 27, 2023
Since 2019, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) has been aggressively suing consumers, many of whom were once employees of UAMS, over small amounts of medical debt, according to CNN.
The CNN investigation chronicles the experiences of both employees and patients who received medical care at UAMS and were subsequently sued over outstanding debt. Many times, consumers were sued over small outstanding balances that later turned into larger sums because of UAMS adding numerous administrative fees. Another disturbing factor is the sheer number of lawsuits filed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016, UAMS filed just 35 lawsuits. That number skyrocketed nearly 100-fold to over 3,000 lawsuits in 2021.
Keri Whimper is a former UAMS medical assistant who contracted COVID-19 during the midst of the pandemic. She was sued for $700 for a bill she believed was covered by her insurance. She stated, “I worked for them through Covid, and they’re still doing this to me. This really shows they don’t care about their employees at all.” The University also sued doctors, including the Chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, for a $2,000 bill.
Most of the lawsuits UAMS has filed against consumers have been for unpaid medical bills totaling $1,000, yet there are cases of consumers being sued for outstanding balances of as little as $100. The University has gone even further in adding court filing fees, attorney fees, service fees, and interest charges that double or triple the original balance owed. After all this, the University has also garnished defendants’ wages and bank accounts, leading some consumers to file for bankruptcy and delay critical care.
Renee Russell was one of the patients whose life was completely turned upside down by UAMS. She was sued for around $3,200 over treatment of diverticulitis. She took on extra jobs and cut down on necessities for her family after the hospital garnished a portion of her wages from her dog grooming business, which was already struggling with decreased revenue due to COVID-19. “What they took from me was life-altering during a hard time,” said Russell.
Russell faced another devastating setback as the lawsuit drastically hurt her credit score, dropping it to 480. “It hurt me, it hurt me big time. What did they gain from literally crushing me?” Russell said.
National Consumer Law Center’s Berneta Haynes, who specializes in medical debt, described UAMS’s aggressive debt collection practices as “draconian” and “cruel,” adding, “This is why people end up avoiding necessary healthcare, because they don’t want to face the spiral of medical debt.”
Recently, states across the country have taken action to ban or limit the use of wage garnishment. New York, Maryland, New Mexico, and California each have passed legislation to limit this predatory action. Unfortunately, Arkansas is not a state that has taken similar action.
These predatory medical debt collection tactics are especially troubling, particularly among vulnerable populations. CQC urges providers and lawmakers across the nation to put an end to the use of predatory hospital collection practices. In the same vein, CQC urges nonprofit and public hospitals to hold up their end of the bargain to better serve their communities by providing charity care to those who need it and provide greater transparency of financial eligibility requirements for consumers.