In light of the recent reporting that uncovered the aggressive debt collection tactics employed by the U.Va. Health System, the University has announced changes it will be making to the billing process. These reforms include revised financial assistance guidelines which will allow more low-income patients to get partial or complete relief from their medical debt. However, the University stopped short of ceasing all lawsuits against indebted patients, citing legal obstacles. It instead opted to institute a threshold that limits lawsuits to only debts above $1,000 and against patients who earn at least 400 percent above the federal poverty line. We praise the University’s quick adoption of new policies to redress the problematic practices of the hospital, but we also urge the administration to work diligently to end all debt collection lawsuits.
The new financial assistance guidelines, which will come into effect on Jan. 1, are a much-needed improvement to the current draconian guidelines. They will create a sliding scale of eligibility for assistance. The plan ranges from fully writing off bills for people who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line and have less than $50,000 in assets to a 40 percent reduction for people who earn below 400 percent of the poverty line regardless of assets.
This is significantly more generous than the current guidelines, which only help people if they are at or lower than the federal poverty line and own fewer than $3,200 in assets. To put that in perspective, according to The Daily Progress, “low-income families with as little as $4,000 in a savings account were dunned for outstanding medical bills, as well as court fees and lawyer fees.” This is grossly inappropriate and the University is rightfully changing it.
With that in mind, however, the crux, of the debt collection scandal was the aggressive legal strategy taken by the hospital that devastated people’s lives, so any suitable response to it will include a complete renouncement of those actions. The simple — once-thought-to-be-obvious — fact is that a publicly funded organization should not be kicking families out of their homes because someone got sick. While the University reforms do mitigate the risk of that happening, they don’t eliminate it.
The University’s reason for not stopping all lawsuits against patients is that it is legally obligated as a state agency to collect unpaid bills. Yet, it is unclear to us how that could be the case considering that VCU Health, another health system run by a public university, recently halted all lawsuits against patients.
Perhaps there are sound legal reasons as to why the University cannot immediately end the practice. If that is the case, then University officials should follow through with their plan to lobby the General Assembly. Moreover, they should do so with the same level of aggressiveness used to squeeze every last penny from its poorest patients. And if it is successful, U.Va. should stop all suits against patients the minute it is lawful.
The manner in which the University conducted debt collection for medical bills is absolutely unacceptable and should never be allowed to happen again. While we are pleased with the progress the University has made thus far, we will not be fully satisfied until the hospital renounces all lawsuits against patients over unpaid medical bills.
The Cavalier Daily Editorial Board is composed of the Executive Editor, the Editor-in-Chief, the two Opinion Editors and their Senior Associate. The board can be reached at email@example.com.