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A charitable Christian hospital is suing its own workers for unpaid medical bills: shots



The Methodist Le Bonheur health system in Memphis, which includes Methodist University Hospital, has sued thousands of patients, including many of its own low-paid workers.

Andrea Morales for MLK50


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The Methodist Le Bonheur health system in Memphis, which includes Methodist University Hospital, has sued thousands of patients, including many of its own low-paid workers.

Andrea Morales for MLK50

This article was written in collaboration with the not-for-profit news organization MLK50 which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network .

This year, a hospital housekeeper has given up work Just three hours after her shift, she took a bus to the Shelby County General Sessions Court in Memphis, Tennessee.

In her black and gray uniform she had another appointment with her employer, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare: The hospital was sued for unpaid medical bills.

In 2017, the Memphis-based not-for-profit hospital system sued the woman for hospitalization costs for the treatment of chronic abdominal pain she had before the hospital hired her.

It now owes Methodist more than $ 23,000, including approximately $ 5,800 in legal fees.

It's surreal to be charged by the organization, which pays its $ 12.25 an hour. "You know how much you pay me, and I can not live on the money you pay," says the housekeeper, asking that her name not be used, for fear that the hospital would release her, because she spoke to a reporter

From 2014 to 2018, the United Methodist Church-affiliated hospital system filed more than 8,300 complaints against patients, including some of its own employees. After obtaining judgments, it has attempted to wipe out the wages of more than 160 Methodist workers, and indeed did so in more than 70 cases during that time, according to an MLK50 ProPublica analysis of the records of the Shelby County General Sessions Court, Online file reports and files.

Part of the debt was incurred while the employees worked at Methodist. others were older than there. The figures do not include debts from former Methodist employees who have since moved on.

It is not uncommon for hospitals to sue patients for unpaid debts. As NPR reported on Tuesday, recent research shows that more than a third of Virginia hospitals do so. Previous reports from NPR and ProPublica have established the practice in several other states.

Noticeable in Methodist, the largest hospital system in the Memphis area, is how many of the sued patients are employees of the hospital. Hardly a week goes by without Methodist workers standing trial to fight the debt claims filed by their employer.

Between January and mid-June, a reporter observed more than a dozen Methodist employees in court to defend themselves in lawsuits brought by the hospital over hospital bills.

Among them is a Methodist Le Bonheur employee who owes more than $ 1,200. In January, she suggested paying $ 100 a month, even though her affidavit listed monthly expenses that exceeded her monthly income of $ 1,650. Following a meeting with a Methodist lawyer, Judge Betty Thomas Moore agreed with the worker's suggestion, but she has already missed a payment.

A few weeks later, a Methodist official appeared for a first hearing in hospital clothing. The hospital had sued her for more than $ 4,000. When she left the courtroom, she was angry. Her employer knew where she worked, she said, and should have contacted her before she was sued.

"I do not know why they can not come upstairs," she said in front of the courtroom.

And in May. An employee who has worked for Methodist for more than four years carried a large envelope full of bills to the courtroom. She owed more than $ 5,400, including a 2017 hospital fee from the neonatal department. This is the same year that her daughter was born, as evidenced by her affidavit, which also states a balance of less than $ 4.

The woman volunteered to pay US $ 10 per fortnight or US $ 20 most months, but Methodist's lawyer wanted $ 200 per month. The judge sentenced her to a monthly payment of $ 100.

What makes matters worse, according to employees, is that Methodist's health insurance benefits only allow employees to seek medical care in Methodist institutions, even though the financial supportive measures are more generous with their competitors

A specialist in hospital billing practices says If the hospital sued a fair number of its own employees, it is time to examine both the insurance provided to workers and the salary scale.

As the hospital sues some of its own employees, "one would hope … the hospital would look at the insurance they provide to the workers." says Mark Rukavina, a former non-profit hospital consultant and currently manager of Community Catalyst, a healthcare-based organization.

Methodist declined requests for an interview. She did not answer specific written questions about the lawsuits she filed against her employees or how her policies reflect the values ​​of the United Methodist Church. Instead, it says in a written statement that it is working with patients who have difficulty paying their medical bills.

"As the second largest private employer in Shelby County, we acknowledge the responsibility that we as an organization must bear for the success of the various communities we serve and for the creation of jobs in our community – with the intent to provide services such as printing, Laundry and others who are usually outsourced by health care to keep in-house, "the hospital said. [19659013] Methodist also declined to answer a question as to whether there is a policy prohibiting employees from being accused by Methodist of talking to a reporter about the lawsuits filed against them by the hospital.

Employers and Opponents

Between January and mid-June this year, a reporter observed more than a dozen Methodist employees in court to defend themselves in lawsuits that the hospital had filed for hospital bills.

Andrea Morales for MLK50


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Between January and mid-June this year, a reporter observed more than a dozen Methodist employees in court to defend themselves in hospital-initiated litigation.

Andrea Morales for MLK50

On a single January day, there were 10 defendants in the file, whose place of employment was listed as Methodist in the court records.

Peelings employees were only a few yards away from lawyers in suits-lawyers hired by their employer to sue them. The role of the hospital as a tax-exempt organization, which employs and sued both the defendants, was not considered by judges, lawyers and defendants themselves.

Methodist's grant policy differs from that found in Memphis and across the country, MLK50 and ProPublica. The policy does not support patients with some form of health insurance, regardless of their payout costs. As part of Methodist's insurance, employees are responsible for a deductible of $ 750 and subsequently 20% of inpatient and outpatient costs, up to a maximum deductible of $ 4,100 per annum.

The story of the housekeeper is documented in Shelby County General's Records of the Court of Appeals, including online docket reports and online payment logs. A reporter interviewed the housekeeper several times, personally and over the phone. The clerk gave the reporter six-year-long detailed accounts for Methodist hospitals, credit reports, and other overdue medical bills. Most of her debts came before she joined Methodist.

Between 2012 and 2014, she visited the hospital five times because of stomach problems, as indicated in the individual calculations. (She was operated on years later to treat diverticulitis.) At that time she was insured by her job in a hotel, where she cleared rooms for $ 10.66 an hour. After the insurance paid its share, it owed a little over $ 17,500.

In 2015, the housekeeper left the hotel job and lost her insurance. This year, she went to the emergency room of the Methodist three times, but since she was uninsured and low-income, she qualified for financial support. Methodist has written off hospital bills worth more than $ 45,000.

In a statement, Methodist stated that uninsured patients were granted an automatic 70% discount and uninsured patients free or under 125% of the federal poverty line. For a single adult with two dependents, that would be just over $ 26,600. Uninsured patients earning more than that but less than twice the poverty line are also eligible for discount.

In 2016, the housekeeper left Memphis because she could not find work. For more than a year, she says, she and her son were homeless and lived between relatives in Chicago, where she was born, and Texas.

But she missed her daughter and grandchildren in Memphis. So she returned in 2017. In August 2017, Methodist sued her for the bills she had accumulated in insurance years ago. Later this month, she was hired from $ 11.95 an hour in a Methodist hospital.

The collection agency of the hospital that owns her did not have the right address and could not find that she was being sued, but last year Methodist tried again. This time she had the right address.

In November, a process server handed her the arrest warrant at her home in South Memphis.

On the recommendation of the process server, she called the collection agency of the hospital and offered to pay $ 50 each for two weeks. "But they said it was not enough," she recalls. "I just have to go to court, they said I owe them something all my life."

In an affidavit filed with the court this year, the housekeeper called her relatives a grandson and her 27-year-old child-age son, who says she has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She told the court that she earned $ 16,000 in 2017, which is more than $ 4,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. (However, as she was insured, she was not eligible for support under the Hospital Policy.)

Fred Morton, a retired Methodist minister in Memphis, said he was surprised to learn that Methodist was suing his own employees.

Employees should receive at least a reasonable minimum wage, "he says." Surely, they should not make their own employees' medical bills robbery. This is very contrary to scripture. "

He said that Methodist bishops who serve on their board bear responsibility for reminding them of the values ​​of the denomination.

An employee at a Methodist university hospital is employed by her employer charged with unpaid medical bills incurred prior to their recruitment.

Andrea Morales for MLK50


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An employee of a Methodist University Hospital is charged by her employer for unpaid medical bills before she is recruited.

Andrea Morales for MLK50

"It's about the church pushing itself," says Morton.

Three bishops of the United Methodist Church serve on the board of the hospital. Bishop Gary Mueller's office sent a reporter to Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare's communications office. Bishop Bill McAilly declined to comment. Bishop James E. Swanson did not respond to multiple requests for comments.

When the housekeeper appeared before a judge at the General Meetings Court this year, she had filed an application to pay $ 50 bimonthly or $ 100 in most months. When the hospital attorney asked for $ 200 a month, she was stunned.

"This is my only job, this is my only income, so how should I live?" she remembered thinking.

The housekeeper was nervous that the judge would join the hospital and made another offer.

"I could make $ 75 every two weeks," she said quickly.

The lawyer agreed and the judge signed the order.

Being an employee and a defendant is "really sad," says the housekeeper. When asked how she gets by, she says she does not: "It kills me – kills me gently."

She says she has neither the payroll of the hospital nor a manager over the Hospital bills informed that she has to be sued. "She does not care … I know that."

& # 39; I do not want to be homeless again & # 39;

Part of what makes paying medical bills so difficult For some Methodist employees, their wages are low and lag behind some of the other big employers in the Memphis market. In December, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital announced that the minimum salary for full-time and part-time workers will be raised to $ 15 per hour. The decision of St. Jude followed a similar commitment by the Shelby County government, the Shelby County Schools and the Blue Cross Blue Shield in Tennessee.

Methodist, which operates five hospitals in Shelby County, earns the lowest-paid employees around $ 10 per hour, with 18% of employees earning less than $ 15 per hour, the hospital reported in response to the MLK50 survey the living wage of 2018.

As recently as 2017, the Greater Memphis Chamber announced on its website that the city is offering workers at "pay rates" that are correspondingly lower than most other parts of the country. "

The United Methodist Church's social principles, which set out the denomination's position on everything from climate change to the death penalty, speak directly to what workers should earn." Everyone has the right to a job In the Declaration on Living Wage Model on the Church's website, it says: "Exploitation or underpayment of workers is incompatible with Christ's command to love our neighbor."

Methodist, of Forbes 2019 as The best employers by state did not answer specific questions about pay for employees, but his website states: "It is the policy of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare to pay its employees competitive, marketable wages."

Neither Methodist, non-profit Baptist Memorial Healthcare still Regional One, the public hospital, pay all their wages M Employees at least $ 15 an hour. Even this figure would make it impossible to make ends meet for an employee who alone is trying to provide a household with dependents, as the MIT wage calculator and another payroll calculator compiled by the Economic Policy Institute show, both of which take local living costs into account ,

] The housekeeper pays $ 12.25 per hour. Without overtime, she says, her takeaway salary would be around $ 1,600 a month. Their rent is 610 US dollars.

Although she does as much overtime as possible, she has turned to payday loans. Since December, she has extended a payday loan of $ 425 every two weeks, paying $ 71 each time. "You have to rob Paul to pay Peter," she says. "It does not look like you can move on."

The housekeeper applied for a job at Walmart, but was informed that the business near her was not accepting applications. She doubts that the pay will be better, but she hopes it will be less stressful.

"Times are difficult because sometimes my body feels like I can not make it," she says. "But I get up anyway, because I do not want to become homeless again."

Wendi C. Thomas is the publisher of MLK50: Justice through Journalism. Email them to wendicthomas@mlk50.com and find them on Twitter at @wendi_c_thomas .

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