Arkansas’ public university hospital has sued thousands of patients over medical bills during the pandemic, including hundreds of its own nurses and employees

Watch “Erin Burnett Out Front” tonight at 7 p.m. ET for more on this story.



CNN
 — 

As Covid cases spread in 2020, visitors to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences were greeted by a colorful sign put up by grateful neighbors outside the university’s medical center: “Heroes Work Here.”

The university adopted the message in glossy promotional videos it posted online, introducing viewers to individual nurses, doctors, and health workers who described their jobs. “Sometimes it’s easy for people who pass through here to see our frontline caregivers as the heroes, or our educators as the heroes – it’s really everybody,” Cam Patterson, the university chancellor, declared in one video. 

But at least a dozen of the “heroes” that UAMS featured in online advertisements and other videos weren’t just employed by the university – they’ve also been sued by it. 

UAMS, Arkansas’ flagship public health sciences university, has been aggressively suing thousands of former patients over medical debt in recent years, including hundreds of its own employees, a CNN investigation found. 

Since 2019, UAMS has sued more than 8,000 patients to collect on unpaid medical bills, according to court records. It filed more debt collection lawsuits in recent years than any other plaintiff in the Arkansas court system other than the state tax office.

The university’s use of the courts ballooned during the coronavirus pandemic. It filed 35 lawsuits in 2016 but more than 3,000 in 2021 – an average of nearly nine a day.

CNN reviewed court documents from thousands of UAMS lawsuits and identified more than 500 defendants who were listed as working for the university itself. The employees ranged from nurses and patient services associates to clinical technicians and lab workers to housekeepers and cooks.

Twenty people sued by UAMS, including more than a dozen current or former employees, spoke to CNN about their cases. Keri Whimper, a former UAMS medical assistant, said the university’s lawsuit against her – demanding a total of about $700 for a bill she thought had been covered by insurance – felt like a betrayal after she contracted Covid while working at the medical center.

“I worked for them through Covid, and they’re still doing this to me,” she said. “This really shows they don’t care about their employees at all.”

UAMS, which is part of the state government and is Arkansas’ largest public employer, operates a major teaching hospital in the state capital of Little Rock and runs clinics around the state. Its legal practices, which have not been previously reported, are an example of how aggressive medical debt collection efforts aren’t limited to corporate, for-profit hospitals.

Most of the lawsuits UAMS filed in recent years involved unpaid medical bills of about $1,000 or less, with some cases over as little as $100. In its complaints, the university tacked on hundreds of dollars of court filing fees, attorney fees, service fees, and interest charges, sometimes doubling or tripling the original amount owed. It moved to garnish defendants’ wages

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How to avoid costly medical bills and get out of medical debt : Shots

How to get rid of medical debt — or avoid it in the first place

Patients and the consumer advocates say there are things people should do to try to avoid, or navigate, the medical debt trap. Financial assistance is available, but it all requires self-advocacy.
Patients and the consumer advocates say there are things people should do to try to avoid, or navigate, the medical debt trap. Financial assistance is available, but it all requires self-advocacy.

Lori Mangum was 32 when apple-sized tumors sprouted on her head. Now — six years and 10 surgeries later — the skin cancer is gone. But her pain lives on, in the form of medical debt.

Even with insurance, Mangum paid $36,000 out-of-pocket, charges that stemmed from the hospital, the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the pharmacy, and follow-up care. And she still has about $7,000 more to pay.

While she was trying to manage her treatment and medical costs, Mangum remembers thinking, “I should be able to figure this out. I should be able to do this for myself.”

But medical billing and health insurance systems in the U.S. are complex, and many patients have difficulty navigating them.

“It’s incredibly humbling — and sometimes even to the point of humiliating — to feel like you have no idea what to do,” Mangum said.

If you’re worried about incurring debt during a health crisis or are struggling to deal with bills you already have, you’re not alone. Some 100 million people — including 41% of U.S. adults — have health care debt, according to a recent survey by KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation).

But you can inform and protect yourself. NPR and KHN spoke with patients, consumer advocates, and researchers to glean their hard-won insights on how to avoid or manage medical debt.

“It shouldn’t be on the patients who are experiencing the medical issues to navigate this complicated system,” said Nicolas Cordova, a health care lawyer with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. But consumers who inform themselves have a better chance of avoiding debt traps.

That means knowing the ins and outs of various policies — whether it’s your insurance coverage, or a hospital’s financial assistance program, or a state’s consumer protection laws. Ask a lot of questions and persist. “Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Cordova, “because sometimes you might get a ‘yes’.”

Even people with health insurance can land in debt; indeed, one of the biggest problems, consumer advocates said, is that so many people are underinsured, which means they can get hit with huge out-of-pocket costs from coinsurance and high deductibles.

Here is some practical advice about facing down medical debt, at every stage of care and after.

Before You Get Care

Get familiar with your insurance coverage and out-of-pocket costs

Get the best insurance coverage you can afford — even when you’re healthy. Make sure you know what the copays, coinsurance, and deductibles will be. Don’t hesitate to call the insurer and ask someone to walk you through all the potential out-of-pocket costs. Keep in mind that you cannot make changes to your policy except during certain windows of time, such as open enrollment (typically in the fall or early winter) or after a major life event.

Sign up for public insurance if you qualify

If you’re uninsured but need health care, you might qualify for

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Wisconsin’s ‘chronic Lyme’ patients embrace alternative treatments, rack up big bills

Logo wordmark of Wisconsin Watch: The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

By Zhen Wang, Wisconsin Watch

 

Crystal Pauley, a former physician assistant, didn’t believe in so-called chronic Lyme disease — until she became sick.

Many health care providers reject chronic Lyme disease as a diagnosis. One 2010 survey found that just six out of 285 primary care doctors surveyed in Connecticut — an epicenter for the tick-borne infection — believed that symptoms of Lyme disease persist after treatment or in the absence of a positive Lyme test.

When Pauley worked for the La Crosse-based Gundersen Health System, she remembered hearing about a friend from high school battling chronic Lyme in Australia. But she had her doubts. “I’m working in the medical field,” she said. “We’ve never learned about that.”

Years later, Pauley has changed her mind. Pauley tested positive for Lyme in 2020. She suffers from unrelenting fatigue, joint pain and brain fog. She walks up stairs sideways because of the unbearable knee pain. Pauley said she has become “pseudo-Lyme literate” because of her own personal journey.

Pauley belongs to a cohort of patients with Lyme-like symptoms but negative test results or patients with positive test results who suffer from lingering symptoms long after treatment. They call it chronic Lyme disease, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels it as Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS). The CDC says there is no known treatment for the condition.

“Their symptoms are always real. They’re experiencing them,” said Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious-disease associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin who treats Lyme patients with persistent symptoms.

“If someone is having physical symptoms and isn’t feeling listened to, then they’ll have mental health repercussions and then that will impact their physical well-being,” she said. “And then it’s a spiral that if you don’t address both components of health, you’re not going to make much progress on either side. And they will continue to feel sick.”

Wisconsin Watch talked with five Wisconsin patients, all women, who have been searching for validation and experimenting with personalized treatments as part of a long and sometimes grueling battle with the illness. The infection comes from tiny ticks primarily found in the northeastern United States, including in Wisconsin — which is a hot spot for Lyme, ranking No. 5 among states for Lyme cases in 2019.

One of the five tested positive for Lyme using a two-step testing recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three others tested positive using a test not recommended by the CDC. The fifth woman was diagnosed as possibly suffering from the disease by a “Lyme-literate” practitioner.

Wide-ranging symptoms

All of the five patients share commonalities. They’ve never noticed the signature “bull’s eye” rash around the tick bite, the hallmark of Lyme disease, which is seen in 70% to 80% of patients. But relentless waves of rheumatologic, cardiac and neurological symptoms have flattened their lives. Some of them were previously fit and healthy.

Pauley, 37, who as a student cranked through medical textbooks, began having trouble remembering

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Anxious about wellness treatment bills down the line? Do this.

The scary detail about retirement is that it can be difficult to estimate your potential living fees way in progress. If you intend to hold your recent household, its residence tax monthly bill could rise by $2,000 around the future 20 years. Or, it could rise by $10,000, and which is a huge difference.

In the same way, the price of healthcare could rise as soon as you enter retirement, and that could be thanks to a range of variables. Very first, there is certainly inflation – a little something a lot of people are acquainted with these times. Inflation has been notably robust inside the realm of health care, so in time, your charges could climb even if your wellness stays solid. But together these traces, the state of your health will also dictate how substantially cash you conclude up acquiring to spend on health-related care in the future.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR Publication:  The Daily Income delivers our leading private finance tales to your inbox

If you happen to be worried about affording health care once your time in the workforce comes to an conclude, you happen to be in excellent business. In a recent Principal survey, 64% of staff cited health care expenses in retirement as a factor that’s stopping them from experience monetarily secure about the future.

The fantastic news, while, is that there are techniques you can choose to preserve for healthcare in retirement. And the quicker you commence, the significantly less of a stress your senior clinical prices could possibly be.

Save now, worry fewer later

If you happen to be a long time away from retirement, predicting your potential healthcare expenditures can be challenging. And so your greatest wager is to just preserve as aggressively as probable.

To that conclude, you have some alternatives. Initially, you could search at maxing out your IRA or 401(k) strategy, if your employer features 1. The revenue you sock absent in both account will be yours to use for any goal arrive retirement, so the increased a equilibrium you accrue, the superior.

You can also search at contributing to a wellbeing cost savings account, or HSA. Not every person is suitable for just one of these accounts, and you can expect to only be allowed to participate if you might be currently enrolled in a superior-deductible health and fitness insurance plan plan. But if you do qualify for an HSA, it pays to max out or get as shut as feasible.

TURNING 65 IN 2022? Ought to you claim Medicare and Social Security?

Not like flexible investing accounts, HSA cash never ever expire, so you can fund your account currently and have that income into retirement. In the meantime, HSAs let you to commit cash you are not working with. And like Roth IRAs and 401(k)s, any financial investment gains you delight in in your HSA will be yours to appreciate tax-no cost. HSA withdrawals are also tax-no cost, supplied they are applied to address

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After Medical Bills Broke the Bank, This Family Headed to Mexico for Care

The Fierro family of Yuma, Arizona, had a string of bad medical luck that started in December 2020.

That’s when Jesús Fierro Sr. was admitted to the hospital with a serious covid-19 infection. He spent 18 days at Yuma Regional Medical Center, where he lost 60 pounds. He came home weak and dependent on an oxygen tank.

Then, in June 2021, his wife, Claudia, fainted while waiting for a table at the local Olive Garden. She felt dizzy one minute and was in an ambulance on her way to the same medical center the next. She was told her magnesium levels were low and was sent home within 24 hours.

The family has health insurance through Jesús Sr.’s job. But it didn’t protect the Fierros from owing thousands of dollars. So, when their son Jesús Fierro Jr. dislocated his shoulder, the Fierros — who hadn’t yet paid the bills for their own care — opted out of U.S. health care and headed south to the U.S.-Mexico border.

And no other bills came for at least one member of the family.

The Patients: Jesús Fierro Sr., 48; Claudia Fierro, 51; and Jesús Fierro Jr., 17. The family has Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas health insurance through Jesús Sr.’s employment with NOV Inc., formerly National Oilwell Varco, a multinational oil company.

Medical Services: For Jesús Sr., 18 days of inpatient care for a severe covid infection. For Claudia, less than 24 hours of emergency care after fainting. For Jesús Jr., a walk-in appointment for a dislocated shoulder.

Total Bills: Jesús Sr. was charged $3,894.86. The total bill was $107,905.80 for covid treatment. Claudia was charged $3,252.74, including $202.36 for treatment from an out-of-network physician. The total bill was $13,429.50 for less than a day of treatment. Jesús Jr. was charged about $5 (70 pesos) for an outpatient visit that the family paid in cash.

Service Providers: Yuma Regional Medical Center, a 406-bed, nonprofit hospital in Yuma, Arizona. It’s in the Fierros’ insurance network. And a private doctor’s office in Mexicali, Mexico, which is not.

The Fierros have been strapped by unusually high medical bills from the Yuma Regional Medical Center.(Lisa Hornak for KHN)

What Gives: The Fierros were trapped in a situation that more and more Americans find themselves in: They are what some experts term “functionally uninsured.” They have insurance — in this case, through Jesús Sr.’s job, which pays $72,000 a year. But their health plan is expensive, and they don’t have the liquid savings to pay their “share” of the bill. The Fierros’ plan says their out-of-pocket maximum is $8,500 a year for the family. And in a country where even a short stay in an emergency room is billed at a staggering sum, that means minor encounters with the medical system can take virtually all of the family’s disposable savings, year after year. And that’s why the Fierros opted out.

According to the terms of the insurance plan, which has a $2,000 family deductible and

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Hit with $7,146 for two hospital bills, a family sought health care in Mexico : Shots

Claudia and Jesús Fierro of Yuma, Ariz., review their medical bills. They pay $1,000 a month for health insurance yet still owed more than $7,000 after two episodes of care at the local hospital.

Lisa Hornak for Kaiser Health News


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Lisa Hornak for Kaiser Health News


Claudia and Jesús Fierro of Yuma, Ariz., review their medical bills. They pay $1,000 a month for health insurance yet still owed more than $7,000 after two episodes of care at the local hospital.

Lisa Hornak for Kaiser Health News

The Fierro family of Yuma, Ariz., had a string of bad medical luck that started in December 2020.

That’s when Jesús Fierro Sr. was admitted to the hospital with a serious case of COVID-19. He spent 18 days at Yuma Regional Medical Center, where he lost 60 pounds. He came home weak and dependent on an oxygen tank.

Then, in June 2021, his wife, Claudia Fierro, fainted while waiting for a table at the local Olive Garden restaurant. She felt dizzy one minute and was in an ambulance on her way to the same medical center the next. She was told her magnesium levels were low and was sent home within 24 hours.

The family has health insurance through Jesús Sr.’s job, but it didn’t protect the Fierros from owing thousands of dollars. So when their son Jesús Fierro Jr. dislocated his shoulder, the Fierros — who hadn’t yet paid the bills for their own care — opted out of U.S. health care and headed south to the U.S.-Mexico border.

And no other bills came for at least one member of the family.

The patients: Jesús Fierro Sr., 48; Claudia Fierro, 51; and Jesús Fierro Jr., 17. The family has Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas health insurance through Jesús Sr.’s employment with NOV, formerly National Oilwell Varco, an American multinational oil company based in Houston.

Medical services: For Jesús Sr., 18 days of inpatient care for a severe case of COVID-19. For Claudia, fewer than 24 hours of emergency care after fainting. For Jesús Jr., a walk-in appointment for a dislocated shoulder.

Total bills: Jesús Sr. was charged $3,894.86. The total bill was $107,905.80 for COVID-19 treatment. Claudia was charged $3,252.74, including $202.36 for treatment from an out-of-network physician. The total bill was $13,429.50 for less than one day of treatment. Jesús Jr. was charged $5 (70 pesos) for an outpatient visit that the family paid in cash.

Service providers: Yuma Regional Medical Center, a 406-bed nonprofit hospital in Yuma, Ariz. It’s in the Fierros’ insurance network. And a private doctor’s office in Mexicali, Mexico, which is not.

What gives: The Fierros were trapped in a situation in which more and more Americans find themselves. They are what some experts term “functionally uninsured.” They have insurance — in this case, through Jesús Sr.’s job, which pays $72,000 a year. But their health plan is expensive, and they don’t have the liquid savings to pay their share of

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