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‘You’ve been served’: Wisconsin hospitals sue patients — even during this pandemic

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When her doorbell rang Sunday night, Blanche Jordan was just starting a new Game of Thrones puzzle on her living room floor.

Jordan, 39, is a breast-cancer survivor who is taking social distancing seriously, so she put on a mask before opening the door. A woman handed Jordan a paper and said: “You’ve been served.”

The paper was a court summons that said Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, Inc. was suing Jordan for $7,150. Just three weeks before, Jordan had paid off a different $5,000-plus Froedtert debt linked to a hysterectomy that her insurance did not cover.

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A lawsuit was the last thing Jordan expected during a viral pandemic.

“This lady came to my door. She didn’t have a mask on. She didn’t have gloves. And she looked at me like I’m crazy because I had a mask across my face,” said Jordan, who lives in Milwaukee and works as a caregiver at an assisted living facility outside of the city. “I’m high-risk,” she said.

Life in Wisconsin, as in the rest of the country, has been transformed by COVID-19 in the past three weeks. Wisconsin declared a public health emergency on March 12, yet firms representing health systems in the state continued to sue patients over medical debt.

Jordan is one of at least 46 people sued by Froedtert in small claims court since March 12. Those cases are among at least 104 similar suits filed statewide by health systems over the same period, according to an analysis of small claims cases by Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch.

Steve Schooff, a spokesman for the hospital, said Tuesday that Froedtert “suspended filing small claims suits” as of March 18 in response to COVID-19.

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“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,” he said.

Yet court records at the time showed at least 18 lawsuits filed on the hospital’s behalf since then, including 15 filed on March 31 alone. (The suit against Jordan was filed on March 17; she was served on March 29.) Schooff did not explain the discrepancy. All 18 of those cases have since been dismissed.

‘Really? In The Middle Of All This?’

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Court records show that at least six additional health systems have also sued patients during the pandemic.

UW Health in Madison has filed 19 lawsuits since March 12. Marshfield Clinic, which covers northern, central and western Wisconsin, has filed at least 14 since that date, followed by Bellin Health, based in Green Bay (11); La Crosse-based Gundersen Health System (10); and Aspirus Grand View Health System, which serves parts of northern Wisconsin (3). Froedtert South, which serves southeastern Wisconsin, also filed one suit.

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Bellin chief operating officer and chief financial officer Jim Dietschesaid Thursday the health system ceased legal actions on debt collection on March 18, and that the nine suits filed since then were “an error and we apologize for that.”

The five other systems contacted for this story said they have since paused certain legal actions, which court records support.

Tom Russell, a UW Health spokesman, said the health system instructed its legal agencies on March 26 “to cease pursuit of any legal activity.”

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“These should be stopped for now,” he said.

Tom Duncan, vice president and chief operating officer for Froedtert South, said his system has generally “suspended filing small claim suits” during the pandemic. “However, in rare circumstances, certain small claim suits may be filed to preserve Froedtert South rights. For example: If a medical debt has been in existence for six years, and the statute of limitations is about to end.”

One Madison resident described being “mortified” when a process server knocked on her family’s door on March 28 to serve papers for a UW Health lawsuit over $1,135.90 in medical debt. UW Health filed that lawsuit before March 26. In a phone interview, the resident asked not to be named in this story because she was embarrassed by the debt related to her husband’s heart condition.

“I couldn’t believe someone would do that,” she said about receiving legal papers during a pandemic. “They’re our bills, but really? In the middle of all of this?”

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The woman said her husband offered the process server sympathy, apologizing that the man had to serve papers during a public health emergency.

The woman, who works for a Madison-based nonprofit, saw things differently. “That’s a choice, too. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

Medical Debts And State Response

Some hospitals have stopped the practice of suing patients in recent months following investigative reporting by Kaiser Health News, MLK50, ProPublicaand other outlets.

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Jessica Roulette, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, which provides free legal services to low-income people, said medical bills often fall below things like rent, utilities and food in the “hierarchy of bills and obligations.” Most people facing hospital lawsuits are working and “underinsured,” with plans that leave them on the hook for thousands of dollars in health bills, Roulette said.

Bobby Peterson, executive director of ABC for Health, a nonprofit public-interest law firm in Madison, called it stressful under normal circumstances to face a medical debt lawsuit.

“Today it’s a whole new ballgame,” he said, referring to workers who have lost their jobs and possibly health insurance during the pandemic.

Peterson saw a possible disconnect between some hospitals’ recent decisions to stop suing and the law firms they’ve retained.

“Are the hospitals communicating their own policies internally? And are they communicating with their hired guns out there, making sure that they back off?” Peterson asked.

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Paycheck To Paycheck

The state of Wisconsin considers Blanche Jordan, the Milwaukee caregiver, an “essential” worker during the pandemic, meaning her job is not subject to the “Safer At Home” order. She works five days each week at an assisted living facility from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., alternating work on the weekends. The pay — $15.75 per hour — barely covers her expenses.

Rent, health insurance, utilities and the nearly $300 in garnishments by Froedtert that recently ended, left Jordan with little of her $1,300 biweekly paycheck to spend on other necessities. She filed for bankruptcy in 2016 when, despite being insured, she said she could no longer afford to pay off her debts from treating her aggressive breast cancer.

That journey briefly left her homeless following an eviction, but she generally manages to pay her current landlord on time, Jordan said.

“I’m blessed to have a landlord that’s understanding because his wife died of breast cancer,” she said.

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Jordan said her most recent medical debt stemmed from a hysterectomy that was separate from but related to her cancer treatment. She chose Froedtert to perform the procedure, considering it “the best hospital that we have in Wisconsin.”

What she did not realize, she said: Froedtert did not accept her insurance, which she purchased on a federal exchange created by the Affordable Care Act. Hospital administrators accepted and ran her insurance card, Jordan said, but never mentioned that her insurer would not cover the procedure.

In 2019, a judge in the Milwaukee County Small Claims Commissioner Court awarded Froedtert a judgment against Jordan for about $5,300, including court fees, which the hospital claimed by garnishment of her wages. She finished paying that debt during the first week of March — only to be served papers for the alleged $7,150 debt three weeks later.

Jordan assumes this covers the remainder of the bill for her hysterectomy, which she remembers totaling around $12,000. Wisconsin caps small claims at $10,000.

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She will eventually see her day in court, although it’s not clear when. The coronavirus postponed her court date to May 28, assuming court proceedings resume by then.

Until then, Jordan will continue to take care of people at the assisted living facility, and she will otherwise stay isolated at home, she said, likely playing Scrabble or Uno with her family.

This story is part of a partnership that includes Wisconsin Watch, Wisconsin Public Radio, NPRand Kaiser Health News.

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