At long last, a favorable ruling came in December 2016 for former patients at Yakima Regional Medical and Cardiac Center and Toppenish Community Hospital, both in Central Washington, when the hospitals agreed to pay $4.5 million into a settlement fund to compensate those who were wrongly denied financial assistance from 2007-2014. Last July, Yakima County Superior Court Judge Susan Hahn ruled that the hospitals had violated Washington’s Consumer Protection Act by failing to notify and screen low-income patients for free or reduced-cost care, as required under another state law, the Charity Care Act which was enacted in 1989. The Charity Care Act applies to all hospitals operating in Washington, and to all patients, insured or uninsured alike, who meet income eligibility requirements: those with incomes at 100% or less of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) are eligible for free care, and those whose incomes are at 101-200% of FPL are entitled to discounts.
The legal case on behalf of the patients took slightly over 3 years to be resolved. Due to record-keeping gaps at the hospitals, it is unknown how many former patients are potentially eligible for compensation under the settlement. Deliberate intent by the hospitals to withhold the required notice and eligibility screening was established during the proceedings.
Documents submitted in the lawsuit indicate hospital staff were given incentives and talking points to help them get as much money as possible from low-income patients, and that they were directed not to mention charity care as an option unless a patient knew to specifically ask for it.
In August 2016, the advocacy groups Northwest Health Law Advocates ( NoHLA) and OneAmerica published a report Yakima Regional and Toppenish Hospitals Fail to Provide Sufficient Charity Care based on their research which revealed the financial hardships suffered by patients who could have been eligible for charity care. Likewise it was found that
As a sidebar note since the settlement was announced, the two hospitals are due to soon change hands , for the third time in fourteen years. In 2003, the pair was sold to Health Management Associates and subsequently in 2014 to Tennessee-based Community Health Associates, both for-profit hospital chains. Unlike in other parts of the country, for-profit hospitals are uncommon in Washington. Commitment to upholding the Charity Care Act is one of the conditions for Department of Health approval of a hospital’s conversion from nonprofit-to-for profit.
Across the state, full compliance with the long-standing financial assistance rules can remain still elusive. In June 2016 a class-action lawsuit against Northwest Hospital in Seattle for Charity Care violations was filed. State legislators seeking a remedy filed HB 1359 and companion SB 5231 early this year, to require that a written notice of the availability of Charity Care be included on all hospital bills. The House bill made it through the first cut-off date, and is moving forward in the legislative process. I will be posting on new developments, including provisions in the bill to ensure that notices are given in the language that patients understand.