July 14, 2006

Children’s Hospital failing the poor

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

Imagine you have a family of seven, you have a household income of about $15,000 a year, and you have no medical insurance. Then your little girl gets sick.

You take her to Children’s Hospital in San Diego, where she receives treatment.

But then, since you have no money to pay the bill, you end up with a $35,000 debt. You try to set up a payment plan with the hospital but they tell you that you have to pay the amount in full.

You’re sent to a collection agency. Your credit is ruined.

Only this is not an imaginary tale but a true story and the unfortunate part of this story is that this family would’ve qualified for free or deduced cost because this family is well below the poverty level, Children’s Hospital didn’t inform them that there was such program.

Cases like this repeat at Children’s Hospital San Diego every year, according to a local human rights organization.

On Friday, July 7, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) of San Diego had a rally outside the hospital and hand delivered 2,200 signatures of community residents asking the hospital to improve its treatment of the uninsured and under insured community.

The rally was attended by about 40 people, most of them Latino community members who came from working class households. Some of them have been sent to a collection agency by Children’s Hospital for outstanding balances, including the family cited above for $35,000.

“As a non-profit hospital, Children’s doesn’t pay property taxes, doesn’t pay a lot of taxes, they also receive donations that are tax-deductible,” said Victoria Samaha, head organizer of ACORN San Diego. “In return for the tax breaks it receives, as a charitable institution, this hospital is expected to provide certain amount of free and reduced cost care.”

This is commonly known as “charity care,” she said.

Samaha added that instead of continuing it’s work as a non-profit hospital, Children’s Hospital San Diego has become a predator.

“They are charging uninsured patients a higher price for care than the negotiated price they charge insurers, and then they aggressively work to collect these unfair bills, frequently resorting to wage garnishments and liens, negatively impacting people’s credit,” she said.

Tom Hanscom, media relations representative for Children’s Hospital, said in an e-mail that the hospital’s chief operating officer met with ACORN representatives the morning of the rally and “was given the names of these alleged cases –up until then, we had not been made aware of any such claims.”

As of deadline, Hanscom didn’t return e-mails requesting an interview with hospital officials.

The ACORN document that was delivered to the hospital has several petitions, including the following:

· Have a written, board-approved policy that sets a clear and consistent standard for free-care eligibility.

· Adopt and actively implement free care and discounted care policies that, at a minimum, provide full free care for uninsured and underinsured people with incomes up to at least 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL).

· Ensure that ER patients without insurance are informed about financial assistance programs they might be eligible for.

· Reform the hospital’s collection practices to minimize damage to credit of patients.

“We´re not only trying to help the families that have been sent to collection agencies by the hospital. We’re trying to change the hospital’s policy regarding charity care,” Samaha said.

Children’s Hospital San Diego isn’t the only not-for-profit hospital that is doing this, according to an ACORN report.

Last year lawsuits were filed by a group of lawyers against some 50 hospitals and hospital chains (covering several hundred hospitals). After losing a number of cases at the federal level, they are now being taken up at the state level.

Also, in February, 2004, Provena Convenant Hospital in central Illinois had their non-profit status revoked by a local tax board because of their failure to provide enough charity care.

For further information about ACORN’s hospital campaign, call (619) 235-9593.

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