After Washington Post investigation, U.Va. amends Health System policies

Under pressure after Kaiser Health News’ investigation of aggressive billing and collections practices, the University is making changes

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The medical center rolled out its new policies Friday. The reformulated billing and collection practices intend to reduce medical bills for low-income patients and those without insurance, and they will go into effect January 2020. 

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

A week after The Washington Post published an investigation of the University Health System’s aggressive debt collection policies, the University is making some changes. 

The article — which immediately garnered national attention — followed Kaiser Health News’ examination of the health system’s proclivity for suing patients for unpaid medical bills. In the last six years, the health system sued 36,000 patients for amounts ranging from $13.91 to $1 million. The various lawsuits add up to $106 million. 

The publication prompted some University students to disclose that enrollment holds were placed on their SIS accounts due to unpaid medical bills. 

Hours after the article’s publication, President Ryan took to Facebook with a response. In his post, Ryan explained that he had learned of the University’s collection practices about a month ago, after which he tasked Pamela Sutton-Wallace, Chief Executive Officer of the Medical Center, with formulating new policy. 

“It is complicated, for a number of reasons, including the fact that we are legally obligated as a state agency to collect debts,” Ryan said in his Facebook post. “But we have discretion within those legal constraints to make our system more generous and more humane, and that is what we will do.”

The medical center rolled out its new policies Friday. The reformulated billing and collection practices intend to reduce medical bills for low-income patients and those without insurance, and they will go into effect January 2020. 

Under the new policies, the medical center will discount or write off entirely the medical bills of low-income and uninsured patients. In terms of debt collection practices, the University will no longer file suits for cases involving debts under $1,000. 

A day before these announced changes, the University dismissed 14 patient lawsuits in Albemarle General District Court as the health system reviewed its policies. 

Amid the swirl of policy changes and media attention, Sutton-Wallace — who has served as the Medical Center’s CEO since 2014 and recently as acting Executive Vice President for Health Affairs — announced she would be leaving the University in November. 

Upon Sutton-Wallace’s departure, she will join the New York-Presbyterian Hospital as their Senior Vice President and Regional Chief Operating Officer. 

Although the announcement comes at the heels of Kaiser Health News’ investigation, Ryan said in an email to employees that the two events are unrelated. 

“Given the timing of this announcement, I want to be clear that Pam's departure is in no way related to yesterday's Washington Post story,” Ryan said in the email. “Pam has done a remarkable job leading our Health System.”

During her time at the University, Modern Healthcare recognized Sutton-Wallace as one of the “Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare” in 2018 and “Top 25 Women Leaders” in 2019

Upon Sutton-Wallace’s departure, Dr. Chris Ghaemmaghami, chief medical officer and senior associate dean for clinical affairs, will serve as interim CEO for the health system until the University finds a permanent replacement. 

Despite the University’s apparent transparency in reevaluating and amending its policies, Thursday’s Board of Visitors meeting to discuss health system policies and procedures was a closed meeting. 

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