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