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Debt Collector Is Faulted for Tough Tactics in Hospitals

From the New York Times

Hospital patients waiting in an emergency room or convalescing after surgery are being confronted by an unexpected visitor: a debt collector at bedside.

This and other aggressive tactics by one of the nation’s largest collectors of medical debts, Accretive Health, were revealed on Tuesday by the Minnesota attorney general, raising concerns that such practices have become common at hospitals across the country.

The tactics, like embedding debt collectors as employees in emergency rooms and demanding that patients pay before receiving treatment, were outlined in hundreds of company documents released by the attorney general. And they cast a spotlight on the increasingly desperate strategies among hospitals to recoup payments as their unpaid debts mount.

To patients, the debt collectors may look indistinguishable from hospital employees, may demand they pay outstanding bills and may discourage them from seeking emergency care at all, even using scripts like those in collection boiler rooms, according to the documents and employees interviewed by The New York Times.

In some cases, the company’s workers had access to health information while persuading patients to pay overdue bills, possibly in violation of federal privacy laws, the documents indicate.

The attorney general, Lori Swanson, also said that Accretive employees may have broken the law by not clearly identifying themselves as debt collectors.

Accretive Health has contracts not only with two hospitals cited in Minnesota but also with some of the largest hospital systems in the country, including Henry Ford Health System in Michigan and Intermountain Healthcare in Utah. Company executives declined to comment on Tuesday.

Although Ms. Swanson did not bring action against the company on Tuesday, she said she was in discussions with state and federal regulators about a coordinated response to Accretive Health’s practices across the country. Regulators in Illinois, where Accretive is based, are watching the developments closely, according to Sue Hofer, a spokeswoman with the State Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

“I have every reason to believe that what they are doing in Minnesota is simply company practice,” Ms. Swanson said in an interview, but declined to provide details.

In January, Ms. Swanson filed a civil suit against Accretive after a laptop with patient information was stolen, saying that the company had violated state and federal debt collection laws and patient privacy protections. That action is still pending.

An Accretive spokeswoman declined to comment on whether other states were looking into its practices and issued a brief statement, “We have a great track record of helping hospitals enhance their quality of care.” In its annual report, the company said it was cooperating with the attorney general to resolve the issues in Minnesota.

As hospitals struggle under a glut of unpaid bills, they are reaching out to companies like Accretive that specialize in collecting medical bills.

Hospitals have long hired outside collection agencies to pursue patients after they have left hospital facilities. But financial pressures are altering the collection landscape so that they are now letting collection firms in the front door, according to Don May, the policy adviser for the American Hospital Association, a trade group.

To achieve promised savings, hospitals turn over the management of their front-line staffing — like patient registration and scheduling — and their back-office collection activities.

Concerns are mounting that the cozy working relationships will undercut patient care and threaten privacy, said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a consumer advocacy coalition. “The mission of these companies is in direct opposition to the supposed mission of these hospitals.”

Still, hospitals are in a bind. The more than 5,000 community hospitals in the United States provided $39.3 billion in uncompensated care — predominately unpaid patient debts or charity care — in 2010, up 16 percent from 2007, the hospital association estimated.

Accretive is one of the few companies specializing in hospital debt collection that is publicly traded. Last year, it reported $29.2 million in profit, up 130 percent from a year earlier.

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