- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - A judge says a hospital in Yakima has violated the state Charity Care Act by demanding payment from indigent patients.

Superior Court Judge Susan Hahn said in a ruling this month that the actions of Yakima Regional Medical and Cardiac Center constituted a breach of contract between the hospital and the patients in question, The Yakima Herald reported (http://is.gd/Hz54Yq ). She also granted a motion requiring the hospital to turn over certain information long sought by the plaintiffs to bolster their class-action lawsuit.

“We got into this case because we think it’s essential that hospitals treat patients who are suffering, regardless of how much money they make, and that they not work to deny them care or to squeeze them for money that they can’t afford to pay,” said Andrea Schmitt, a Columbia Legal Services attorney who is representing the plaintiffs. “So we’re very pleased with this ruling.”

The lawsuit was filed in 2013 against Regional and its former owner, Florida-based Health Management Associates. It alleges the hospital discouraged indigent patients from seeking care by requiring payments or deposits before procedures. Documents show employees could earn bonuses based on how much money they could wring out of self-pay patients.

Regional’s current owner, Community Health Systems, which inherited potential liability in the case, has declined to comment.

Washington’s Charity Care Act requires hospitals to offer at least partial charity care to any patient who falls below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, without requiring credit checks or anything else to verify patient eligibility. In her Dec. 14 ruling, Hahn agreed that Regional “routinely” violated the Charity Care Act by requiring deposits from poor patients before screening them for charity care.

“Some overpayments were eventually refunded. Nevertheless, it is likely some indigent patients were unable to pay these deposits and as a result denied access to qualified medical services,” she wrote.

Hahn also shot down Regional’s argument that a violation of the Charity Care Act was not necessarily a violation of the contract between the hospital and patients.

Patient contracts demanded a certain amount of payment, which “was incorrect and the result of the Defendants’ failure to determine CCA eligibility before setting the contract payment amount,” Hahn wrote.

As to the order compelling discovery, Schmitt and the other attorneys for the plaintiffs have long been asking Regional to provide documents listing patients the hospital has taken to court over collections.

“We were just asking for, basically, a list of those actions so that we could see whether the hospital was suing people who were eligible for charity care on their debt,” Schmitt said.

Department of Health records show that in 2013, Regional provided charity care worth about 1.45 percent of its total adjusted patient revenue. The regional average among hospitals in Central Washington was three times that, at 4.4 percent.

The partial summary judgment helps pave the way for the next step, Schmitt said, in which the plaintiffs’ attorneys have a claim pending that Regional’s actions violated the Consumer Protection Act by being “unfair and deceptive.”

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Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com

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