One week after the University of Virginia Medical Center dismissed 14 lawsuits against patients with outstanding bills, lawyers returned to Albemarle General District Court on Thursday to dismiss additional cases and pursue judgments in others.
Out of 142 cases, UVa moved to nonsuit — meaning a case is dismissed but could be brought again at a future date — nearly 50 more of them on Thursday. Questions remain, however, as to how UVa will streamline billing and increase transparency moving forward.
After media reports last week that documented how frequently UVa pursued lawsuits, wage garnishments and liens against patients who had not paid medical bills, UVa dismissed 14 cases on that week’s docket. Last Friday, the hospital announced new policies.
Many of the cases nonsuited are likely ones that do not meet UVa’s new financial assistance criteria, hospital spokesman Eric Swensen said Thursday. And, moving forward, the hospital plans to file lawsuits against patients who earn more than 400% of the federal poverty level (an annual income of $103,000 for a family of four) and owe more than $1,000 to the hospital.
It is not clear if that new threshold applies to cases already before the court, however. University lawyers did request judgments in dozens of cases on Thursday; most involved amounts between $1,000 and $2,000.
Shaun Barbour was sued over a $1,125 bill, he told Judge Matt Quatrara. The fees were due to treatment for a heart condition.
“I agree that I owe it, but I’m making payments,” he said before exiting the courtroom to try to work out an agreement with a university collections staff member.
UVa already discharges some debts of low-income patients; beginning Jan. 1, patients who are between 101-200% of the federal poverty line and who have less than $50,000 in assets also will have their bills written off entirely. Patients with higher incomes and without insurance also will have some bills written off according to a sliding scale.
The changes don’t answer all the questions for some patients, though, said Bill Stovall, who brought his wife, Scarlette, to UVa from their home in Greenville, North Carolina, for an experimental trial for terminal breast cancer.
Insurance has taken care of the vast amount of bills the couple faces, according to Bill Stovall, and he has been careful to place any outstanding bills on small payment plans. But on Friday, as UVa announced plans for new policies, Stovall received a notice of a warrant in debt from the University Physicians Group, saying he owed the organization $1,796.
Stovall said he wasn’t sure how the bill slipped through the cracks. On Tuesday, he called the hotline recently set up by UVa and said that, “after some argument,” UVa agreed to turn the bill over to collections with his other outstanding bills.
“This is a terrible practice,” Stovall said. “If I paid every bill I owe in full right now, I wouldn’t be able to give my wife the life she deserves in the time she has left. I am happy to pay every penny I owe, but it will just take me a few years.”
The policy changes do not touch on the question of whether university students’ enrollment should be placed on hold due to outstanding medical bills. On Thursday, university spokesman Wes Hester said 20 students currently had enrollment holds placed on their accounts. That’s an increase from 17 enrollment holds on Sept. 10, according to previous inquiries by The Progress.
Local officials and community members have called for the hospital to hold town halls on the issue. The Medical Center has held several meetings for staff, including on Monday as students protested outside, but officials have not been made available to address public questions.
On Tuesday, Swensen said the university is working to coordinate public town halls.
“Once we have details, I will share them with you,” he said.