REPORT: 22 Texas hospitals sue patients for unpaid bills

A new report shows more Texans, often poor or unemployed, are getting hit with lawsuits for not paying hospital bills over the last few years.

Most hospitals don't sue patients.  But since January 2018, the study, "Eroding the Public Trust," reports that 22 Texas hospitals have sued patients for unpaid bills. More than 1,300 Texas patients face lawsuits, including 350 just since the economic crisis began. The study was conducted by researchers at several medical schools, including the University of Texas in Austin and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

"We've seen lives devastated over a simple medical bill," said researcher Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon and professor of health policy at the Johns Hopkins and author of the book "The Price We Pay."

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People that he says are often devastated after being sued for hospital bills they can't pay, sometimes for amounts higher than what insurance would have paid.

"To see this practice is really heartbreaking when individuals have their lives ruined over a single bill they simply cannot afford to pay, even with insurance," said Makary.

The study says leading the list of lawsuits is Tennessee based Community Health Systems, which until 2017, owned what is now HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball.

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"CHS is suing patients for bills that are more than three years old for a hospital they no longer own. It was sold to HCA, which by the way has never sued a patient anywhere in the country," said Makary.

Community Health Systems did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

Dana Karni with Lone Star Legal Aid advises anyone being sued to get an attorney.  She says too many defendants end up with default judgments for not even showing up in court.

"When you default on a lawsuit, you are subject to facing a judgment. That judgment eventually could end up impacting your checking account or your savings account," said Karni.

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She explains that liens can be placed on a defendant's bank account, though in Texas, wages, a primary car and home are protected.

She says your HIPAA rights can actually help you in court.
"They can’t just put the debtor's health information in the public record. So there is likely room to negotiate and talk about billing errors or billing disputes," said Karni.

The Texas Hospital Association says that this report concerns only a small percentage of hospitals, and writes in a statement, "Hospitals are in the business of taking care of people and much prefer to work closely with patients and payors to make arrangements to settle account balances in a way that works for everyone. This includes self-pay discounts and other payment programs. They may take more significant action to recoup certain costs as a last resort. Sometimes those costs are deductibles or the cost of services rendered that their insurance coverage does not or will not pay for. Hospitals also may have charity care policies in place that allow hospitals to resolve these issues with patients."

THA also points out that the Civil Practice and Remedies Code requires a hospital to bill any patient’s health plan first. So, by law, hospitals must try to work these issues out with the payor first, even if they are out of network, before moving to other options.

If you are facing a lawsuit over a hospital bill and can't afford an attorney, here are sites and organizations that can help.

Texas Appleseed provides information on your debt collection rights here: