Three days after a report revealed that the University of Virginia Medical Center sued patients 36,000 times over six years to collect on overdue hospital bills, the university moved to dismiss 14 existing cases in Albemarle General District Court.
The cases were on the docket Thursday afternoon. One by one, Melissa Riley, a lawyer for UVa, announced the hospital would non-suit them, meaning that UVa is dropping the case because it does not have enough current evidence, though it may pursue charges again later.
“We non-suited everything that was before the court today,” Riley said after the hearing. “In terms of ongoing lawsuits, the university is conducting a review and may announce changes to its policies tomorrow.”
Tim Heaphy, who is university counsel, said hospital administrators made the decision.
The action comes amidst an internal review of how frequently UVa sues and garnishes wages for repayment of debts. According to a Kaiser Health News investigation, published Monday, the health system and its doctors sued former patients for over $106 million from 2013 to June 2018, seizing wages and bank accounts, putting liens on property and homes and forcing families into bankruptcy.
UVa does not appear to have dismissed the 137 warrant in debt cases scheduled for Sept. 20, however, nor the 159 cases scheduled for Sept. 26, nor the outstanding garnishment cases that appeared in online court records on Thursday.
“None of it makes any sense at all,” said Ashleigh Jackson, who appeared in court to ask questions about garnishment paperwork that she and her husband, Daniel, had received, even though Jackson said they hadn’t seen the original bill and had never noticed a drop in their paycheck. Originally from King William County, the couple recently moved to Charlottesville while their son is treated for complications after a heart transplant.
UVa did not further discuss the decision to non-suit or any other aspect of the issue during Board of Visitors meetings on Thursday.
During a regular meeting of the Health System Board, which oversees the medical center, officials discussed the hospital’s finances, medical school admissions practices and electronic management systems. The hospital is considering a pilot program to offer treatment for hepatitis C at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, according to CEO Pamela Sutton-Wallace.
“We’re going to be very sorry to lose you,” Jim Murray, the rector of the university, told Sutton-Wallace. She announced Tuesday that she would leave her position in November.
The board declined to discuss collections policies in open session.
“I have discussed it with counsel, and the issue of financial management is best discussed in closed session,” said Dr. L.D. Britt, who chairs the board.
UVa is expected to announce further changes to its collections policies on Friday, but it is not clear how far-reaching those changes might be.
Experts have suggested large shifts in how UVa measures patients’ need for financial assistance, as well as broader transparency in how it bills patients.
“Any suing of patients by an organization that won’t show transparent pricing is a violation of the public trust,” said Marty Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University.
Makary, author of the recent book “The Price We Pay,” is also an author of a recent study that found that four nonprofit and one for-profit Virginia hospitals are responsible for 51% of garnishment cases in the state in 2017. He and a team of doctors and lawyers investigated Mary Washington Healthcare in Fredericksburg earlier this year; within a day of an NPR report detailing the number of cases the hospital brought in local courts, the hospital said it would suspend its practice of suing patients for unpaid bills.
Prices for medical procedures aren’t fair if a patient can’t understand how they are coded and charged, Makary asserts, and hospitals need to shake up their business practices.
“We are living in an era where hospitals need to be more honest with prices and services,” Makary said. “You have to change the business of medicine so that it is fair and honest and kind. Nobody went to medical school to have their patients sued into poverty.”