Patient Advocates File Class Action Lawsuit Against NW Hospital over Access to Charity Care

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On June 21, 2016, patient advocates announced a class action lawsuit they filed against Northwest Hospital for failing to meet its responsibility to screen patients for Charity Care. Columbia Legal Services and Schroeter, Goldmark & Bender filed the complaint on behalf of Kamal Amireh and Hugo Cabrera Villalobos, challenging the hospital’s unfair, deceptive, and unlawful practice of subjecting patients to collection efforts for their hospital bills without first screening them to determine their financial eligibility for relief under Washington’s Charity Care Act (CCA).

The CCA requires that all hospitals in the state provide Charity Care in order to ensure access to health care for low-income residents. However, low-income uninsured and underinsured emergency room patients have been consistently denied access to Charity Care at Northwest Hospital, as well as other hospitals across Washington State.  The plaintiffs in this case, both former emergency care patients, claim that the Seattle hospital failed to screen them to determine their eligibility for Charity Care before demanding payment and before sending them to collections.

“When families and workers across Washington receive the necessary health care services they need, we all benefit from healthier communities today and dollars saved on essential medical care in the future,” said Lili Sotelo, Directing Attorney of the Economic Justice Project at Columbia Legal Services. “Today’s lawsuit aims to ensure that people who are eligible for assistance receive it and that ability to pay is not a deterrent to seeking necessary hospital care.”  

Based on the hospital’s own assessment, there are 639,000 people in its hospital service area, 21% of whom are in households with income below 200% of poverty level. That would mean around 134,000 people in the hospital’s service area should qualify for Charity Care based on their income, yet the plaintiffs were not asked their income or family size. The purpose of the law is to guarantee free or discounted hospital care for patients with income at or below 200% of the poverty level which translates to $23,760 a year for a single person, or $48,600 a year for a family of four. Over 30% of the state population is below that cut-off.

“Northwest Hospital should have affirmatively screened and identified both plaintiffs for Charity Care since their income was below 200% of poverty level, but it failed to do so,” said Matt Geyman, a Columbia Legal Services attorney representing the plaintiffs. “This case is intended to stop Northwest’s practice of demanding payment from low income patients without first screening them for Charity Care, and to obtain relief for patients who should have received Charity Care but didn't because Northwest failed to screen them.”

Northwest Hospital is not alone in its failure to affirmatively screen patients for Charity Care. The issues presented in this case affect the rights of the several million uninsured and underinsured patients across Washington State who may be eligible for Charity Care based on their low income and should be screened to determine their eligibility when they receive hospital care.

At a press conference, Columbia Legal Services attorneys also launched a public education campaign to inform future patients and the broader public about Charity Care.  Columbia Legal Services is also investigating additional situations warranting litigation or policy changes.  Ally organizations who work with impacted communities were on hand to discuss the impact of medical debt on families and how one unplanned health emergency can lead to a devastating cycle of debt. They included Northwest Justice Project, Northwest Health Law Advocates, Casa Latina, NAACP, El Centro de la Raza, Solid Ground, and Washington CAN!

For more information about Amireh v. Northwest Hospital, including the complaint and
video recording of the press conference, plus Charity Care resources, including a
factsheet and pamphlet specific to Washington State in English and Spanish,
visit http://www.columbialegal.org/fair-access-to-hospital-care