The national pandemic and consequent economic recession are taking an enormous physical, mental and emotional toll on US citizens, especially those with financial issues or health problems.
Hospitals across Wisconsin have been targeting citizens who suffer from both.
The state of Wisconsin declared a public health emergency March 12 in response to the spread of COVID-19, yet hospitals continued to sue former patients over medical debt. Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, Inc. has sued at least 46 patients in small claims since March 12. According to court records, at least six other health systems have also sued patients in the midst of the pandemic.
Suing people who still have medical debt adds more stress to the already overwhelming fears concerning the health of loved ones and meeting financial burdens. The global pandemic is taking a toll on everyone’s mental and emotional health, so the last thing that hospitals should be doing is increasing further stress for previous patients. These hospitals are escalating the anxiety of people being served by involving legal repercussions.
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While hospitals do need the funds to continue functioning and providing their services for our citizens in the time of a national emergency, it is the job of state and national governments to be taking responsibility. Funds should be allocated towards hospitals to pay all employees who are risking their lives to combat this extremely contagious and deadly illness. One purpose of the government is to ensure that the country and states are able to run smoothly in times with and without chaos. It is the job of local governments to interfere with the lawsuits of health systems in order to ensure its citizens can financially survive the short and long term effects of the virus.
By suing patients over medical debt, health care systems are targeting people who have had financial issues prior to the presence of this virus. If these people had the funds to afford to pay for the treatments, they would have already paid off their debts.
Many of these people have lost their jobs due to Wisconsin’s shutdown policies. Nationally, unemployment is at the highest it has been in many years. In the weeks following the coronavirus’s arrival to the U.S., 22 million people have filed for unemployment. These people are struggling to feed their families and pay their bills with no source of steady income. Even people who work for more skillful professions are at risk of being laid off because companies cannot afford to continue paying the same number of employees with these lower rates of business. People who lose their job could have possibly lost their health insurance with it.
Not only does receiving legal documents increase the anxiety of those obtaining them, but the exchange of papers puts more people at a higher risk of transmission of COVID-19. Health care systems are putting their own workers who are delivering the messages at risk of spreading the virus.
Steve Schooff, a spokesman for Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, Inc., announced that the hospital was “suspending filing small claim suits” as of March 18 as a response to the coronavirus.
He said, “In addition, we continue to work with patients related to financial counseling and are allowing patients with financial hardship who are on a payment plan to defer payments while financial assistance is discussed with them.” But according to court records, at least 18 lawsuits were filed in regards to the hospital after March 18. These lawsuits have recently been dismissed.
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Claiming that the health care systems were postponing legal action towards people with medical debt to the media, but still filing lawsuits in private shows they are only making these decisions based on the hospital’s image and not for the personal well-being of its patients. Some hospitals have temporarily halted the practice of suing patients after being investigated by Kaiser Health News, MLK50, ProPublica and other news outlets. The fact that bad press is the reason they are stopping reveals they know they shouldn’t be serving papers because they don’t want the general public to know they are.
It is the job of the local government to ensure hospitals are postponing suing patients for medical debt until the pandemic has concluded. Until then, they should provide the funds to keep the hospitals supplied and running because the health care workers are the main force combating the virus.
Lauren Hando ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in journalism.