CHARLOTTESVILLE — Three days after a report revealed that the University of Virginia Medical Center sued patients 36,000 times over six years to collect on overdue hospital bills, the university has moved to dismiss 14 existing cases in court.
The cases were on Albemarle County General District Court’s docket Thursday afternoon. One by one, a lawyer for UVA announced that the hospital would non-suit them, meaning that the university is dropping a case because it does not have enough current evidence, though it could pursue charges again later.
“We non-suited everything that was before the court today,” the lawyer, Melissa Riley, said after the hearing. “In terms of ongoing lawsuits, the university is conducting a review and may announce changes to its policies tomorrow.”
Tim Heaphy, who is university counsel, said hospital administrators made the decision.
The action comes amid an internal review of how frequently UVA sues and garnishes wages for repayment of debts.
According to a Kaiser Health News investigation, published Monday by The Washington Post, the health system and its doctors sued former patients for more than $106 million from 2013 to June 2018 — seizing wages and bank accounts, putting liens on property and homes, and forcing families into bankruptcy.
UVA does not appear to have dismissed the 137 warrant in debt cases scheduled for Sept. 20, however, nor the 159 cases scheduled for Sept. 26, nor the outstanding garnishment cases that appeared in online court records Thursday.
“None of it makes any sense at all,” said Ashleigh Jackson, who appeared in court to ask questions about garnishment paperwork that she and her husband, Daniel, had received, even though Jackson said they hadn’t seen the original bill and had never noticed a drop in their paycheck. Originally from King William County, the couple recently moved to Charlottesville while their son is treated for complications after a heart transplant.
UVA did not further discuss the decision to non-suit or any other aspect of the issue during Thursday’s meetings of the board of visitors.
During a regular meeting of the Health System Board, which oversees UVA Medical Center, topics discussed included the hospital’s finances. A reporter stood to ask the board to discuss its collections policies in open session, to no avail.
“I have discussed it with counsel, and the issue of financial management is best discussed in closed session,” said Dr. L.D. Britt, who chairs the board.
UVA is expected to announce further changes to its collections policies on Friday, but it is not clear how far-reaching those changes might be.
Experts have suggested large shifts in how UVA measures patients’ need for financial assistance, as well as broader transparency in how it bills patients.
“Any suing of patients by an organization that won’t show transparent pricing is a violation of the public trust,” said Marty Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University.
Makary, author of the recent book “The Price We Pay,” is also an author of a recent study that found five Virginia hospitals — four nonprofit and one for-profit — are responsible for 51% of garnishment cases in the state in 2017. He and a team of doctors and lawyers investigated Mary Washington Healthcare in Fredericksburg earlier this year; within a day of an NPR report detailing the number of cases the hospital brought in local courts, the hospital said it would suspend its practice of suing patients for unpaid bills.
Prices for medical procedures aren’t fair if a patient can’t understand how they are coded and charged, and hospitals need to shake up their business practices, Makary asserts.
“We are living in an era where hospitals need to be more honest with prices and services,” he said. “You have to change the business of medicine so that it is fair and honest and kind. Nobody went to medical school to have their patients sued into poverty.”