Nursing homes use lawsuits to demand friends and family pay off medical debts : Shots - Health News Debt lawsuits — a byproduct of America's medical debt crisis — can ensnare not only patients but also those who help sick and older people be admitted to nursing homes, a KHN-NPR investigation finds.

Nursing homes are suing friends and family to collect on patients' bills

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So many Americans have medical debt that many are ending up in court as hospitals and doctors' offices sue patients. But nursing homes, they are going one step further. They're suing the friends and relatives of residents who don't pay their bills. NPR and our partner, Kaiser Health News, have been looking into this dark corner of America's health care debt crisis. And joining me to talk about this is Noam Levey, senior correspondent with Kaiser Health News. Hey there.

NOAM LEVEY: Hi.

KELLY: So I want to make sure I understand this. If my elderly parent ends up in a nursing home, doesn't pay their bills, I could be sued?

LEVEY: Amazingly, yes. So we've been digging into court records in Rochester, N.Y., where I've been told there are a lot of these cases. And we found scores of children, grandchildren, neighbors, friends who were sued, sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars. In a few cases, the lawsuits topped $100,000. Altogether, we identified 238 debt collection cases filed by nursing homes in and around Rochester between 2018 and 2021. And that's in just one community. And as you can imagine, these lawsuits can be pretty devastating. Here's Anna Anderson. She's an attorney at Legal Assistance of Western New York. She's defended a lot of people in these debt cases.

ANNA ANDERSON: I get calls all the time from people who are served with these lawsuits who had no idea that this was even a remote possibility, who call me crying and frantic because they believe not only that they're going to lose their own income and their own houses and assets, but also they're concerned that their loved ones who are still in the nursing home may be potentially kicked out.

LEVEY: We heard from one woman whose brother had been admitted to the county nursing home after a hospitalization. A year later, out of the blue, she gets a call telling her that she's being sued for his debt. It was almost $8,000. She had no control of his money or any authority to make any decisions for him. She was so stunned and scared by the lawsuit that she was afraid to tell her husband.

KELLY: But hang on, because I'm trying to understand how this is even legal. I thought you couldn't be held responsible for someone else's debt.

LEVEY: Well, usually that's true. But think about what happens at a nursing home. Most people who end up there are pretty old or infirm. A lot of times an adult child or friend or neighbor helps get them checked in and signs all the paperwork. And what trips many folks up are what's called admissions agreements. These have been used by the nursing homes for years. They often designate whoever signs them as a responsible party who will help the nursing home collect payments. Now, federal law prohibits nursing homes from making relatives sign these things, but the reality is that people do get asked to sign. And here's Anderson again.

ANDERSON: If those folks bring that up to the nursing home while signing the paperwork, the nursing home workers and staff will tell the people that they don't have to worry about it. They're not liable. We just need someone to sign this just as a formality.

LEVEY: And if people sign these forms without realizing what they're doing, they can end up in a lot of trouble.

KELLY: So what kind of trouble? I mean, assume someone signs one of these agreements and then says, no, I'm not going to pay. What happens?

LEVEY: Well, they get accused of breaching a contract, and then the nursing home says they need to pay even if it's their mother or father or friend who is the resident. And the other thing we found is that nursing homes often accuse people of taking their elderly relatives' or friends' money or property instead of paying the nursing home bill. It's an accusation known in debt law as fraudulent conveyance, and Anderson says it can be very scary.

ANDERSON: They believe they're being accused of a crime. And it's something that I think puts a lot of pressure on these third parties and family members to settle quickly and pay the bills.

LEVEY: Now, it's true that sometimes family members do prey on the elderly, but we found almost 90% of the time that nursing homes were making these accusations, they didn't provide any records to support their claims.

KELLY: Now, Noam, I know you were reporting in Rochester, N.Y., but this is happening all over?

LEVEY: Yes. Yes, it is. Now, nursing home industry officials say these lawsuits are rare, but we talked to consumer attorneys in California and Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, as well as New York, who said they regularly see debt collection lawsuits against family and friends. And one attorney told me nursing homes are getting far more aggressive. So this is a national problem and yet another byproduct of our medical debt crisis.

KELLY: Noam Levey with Kaiser Health News, thanks for your reporting.

LEVEY: Thank you.

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