MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare System is the largest hospital system in the Memphis area and the second-largest private employer in Shelby County. And according to new reporting, the company stands out for something else - the thousands of lawsuits it's filed against low-income patients, including its own employees, aided by a licensed collection agency owned by the hospital itself.
According to a new report by the Memphis-based reporting project MLK50 and the nonprofit reporting group ProPublica, the hospital system has brought a whopping 8,300 lawsuits against patients for unpaid medical bills in the last five years. Hundreds of people are having their wages garnished to pay off hospital bills, and many of them are Methodist Le Bonheur employees, typically low-wage workers who make around $12 an hour.
Wendi C. Thomas is the founder and editor of MLK50, and she wrote a two-part series about these lawsuits published this week on ProPublica.
Wendi C. Thomas, thank you so much for joining us.
WENDI C THOMAS: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So it's not unusual for hospitals to sue patients for unpaid medical bills, but there's so much striking about this situation. Like, what are some of the things where - that stands out about this about how unusual this is?
THOMAS: So Methodist is really aggressive in their use of the courts to collect on these debts. Once they get a judgment, they will hound a patient from low-wage job to low-wage job to try to garnish their wages, and that's what we saw with the main character in our story, Carrie Barrett. I call her Ms. Carrie. So Ms. Carrie had surgery in 2007, was sued in 2010. And since then, the hospital has actually added $18,000 worth of interest to her debt. So not only do they add, you know, $5,000 in attorney's fees - they're also accruing interest even as they know she works at low-income jobs.
So part of how this works is Methodist gets the judgment, and then they filed a garnishment order. The employer can return that garnishment order saying, basically, this person doesn't make enough to even have their wages garnished. Ms. Carrie's employer was telling her she's not even making more than enough to have her wages garnished, and Methodist kept after her. It was like they were just waiting to see if she made a little bit more money so they could take it.
MARTIN: And they also are affiliated with the United Methodist Church. I mean, there are three bishops, as I understand from your reporting, that serve on the board. Did they have something to say about this?
THOMAS: They either referred us to Methodist Hospital or would not comment at all. And the denomination, the United Methodist Church, is pretty clear on how the church and church-affiliated institutions are supposed to treat the poor. The church's social principles warn against usury, against exploitation of the poor. They state that, you know, all workers have a right to a living wage - which, you know, brings in the issue of how Methodist doesn't even pay its employees a living wage - not all of them, anyway.
MARTIN: Well, let me just point out one other thing from your reporting. You said that according to the hospital itself, the revenue it received from garnishing people's wages was only two tenths of 1% of more than $600 million in total revenue last year - that's 0.21%. So if that's the case, and they really don't even get that much money from doing it, and, as you saw, it burdens these people with, you know, thousands of dollars in debt - in some cases, twice their annual incomes - why are they so aggressive about doing it when they actually really aren't getting that much money from it?
THOMAS: Well, we know that - from their tax filings in 2018 they brought in $86 million more than they spent. So I'm guessing and experts have speculated that this may be presented to the board as a bad debt issue and not as a some of the people that we're suing are low-income. Do we have thoughts about that?
MARTIN: So you have not had an interview with anybody directly about this where you can put these specific questions to them. They did issue a statement. What exactly did they say about the totality of your reporting?
THOMAS: So we, you know, of course went to them before this was published and presented them with our findings and sent them dozens and dozens of questions. And they just simply refused to answer many of those questions. But in their statement, they say that they believe in providing exceptional care to all members of the community.
But their financial assistance policy, I think it's important to note, does not cover patients with insurance. And we know that a growing number of health insurance plans have higher and higher deductibles, and the cost is being shifted onto the patient. And so offering 0% interest plans to a woman who makes - like Ms. Carrie, who makes $9 an hour - that's probably not going to be of great help to her when she owes the hospital $33,000.
MARTIN: That's Wendi C. Thomas. She's the founder and editor of MLK50. That's a nonprofit reporting project based in Memphis, Tenn. She wrote a two-part series about the lawsuits by - the aggressive collection tactics by Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare System in Memphis in collaboration with ProPublica.
Wendi C. Thomas, thank you so much for talking to us.
THOMAS: Thank you.
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