Under federal law, nonprofit hospitals must offer care at a reduced cost to lower income patients, a service often called charity care. But crucial details—how poor patients need to be, how much bills are reduced, and how policies are publicized—are left to the hospital. The Affordable Care Act empowered the IRS to set new requirements for publicizing this information, but those have yet to be finalized.
If a patient can’t pay and Northwest obtains a judgment, it’s too late. Hospital policy says once the collection agency has “incurred legal fees” on a case, the patient is ineligible for charity care, regardless of earnings.
I’m breaking my break because this spectacular piece of investigative journalism is really all I wanted for Christmas. This is an issue that makes the individual mandate, as Salt-N-Pepa might say, very necessary.
Charity care/financial assistance is available at my academic health system. Patients qualify for financial assistance based on income and payments are calculated with a sliding scale. They may owe nothing, a percentage of the total, or be put on a payment plan. This article uncovers that the criteria for how a patient finds out about or applies for or qualifies for financial assistance is largely left up to the hospital. As a recent cancer patient with massive bills but good insurance and 2/3 of a graduate degree from the academic health system where I received treatment, I still messed up paying the hospital. Medical billing is incomprehensible and damn tricky. Adding the difficulty of applying for financial assistance on top of your stack of bills from many non-communicating entities is the real cherry on top of the garbage sundae. No, it’s an additional garbage sundae on top of the garbage sundae. No, it’s just a pile of garbage.
Bottom line: Access to aid is limited. Barriers to aid are significant. And, most shockingly to me, once you have been sued successfully by the hospital, you no longer qualify for aid. *MIND EXPLODES*