Hospitals Shirking on Financial Assistance

Wade Rathke Posted by Wade Rathke.

Wade Rathke is the founder of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) – a nationwide activist network engaged in community organizing.


Hospitals Shirking on Financial Assistance

Kiln, Mississippi    When the doctors’ union, the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics rings the bell on the horrid practices of hospitals, you know we have a tiger by the tail – and we’re in danger of continuing to be hurt badly!

The Journal looked at 140 hospitals to see how they were preparing for the mandatory rule taking full effect this January under the Affordable Care Act of providing financial assistance to lower income families. What they saw wasn’t pretty, although we could have told them that from our close inspection of many hospital IRS 990 forms in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and other states.

First the Journal confirmed the fact that finding the information, even for them, and certainly this has been the case for us, was like finding a needle in a haystack. They looked at a random sample of 140 hospitals across fourteen states. In their survey, they found that half of the institutions did not say on their websites whether they were public, private, or nonprofit. Needless to say, their reporter was web savvy which also wouldn’t be true of many families desperate to find if the hospital offered any help. So, transparency, not! Also, not surprisingly, they found that for-profit hospitals generally had not voluntarily created financial assistance policies in line with what nonprofit, tax exempt hospitals are now required to do.

But here comes the real rub in what the Journal found and it goes to the heart of the vagueness of the IRS requirements for financial assistance in this new rule:

…hospital financial assistance policies vary significantly in terms of generosity and terms. Among the sample of financial assistance policies from 140 hospitals, eligibility cutoffs for financial assistance ranged from an income of 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) to 600 percent of the FPL. Many hospitals with financial assistance policies offered free care to those with incomes up to 100-200 percent of the FPL and sliding scale discounts above that threshold. However, some hospitals did not offer any free care and only offered moderate discounts even to the poorest patients. Of the hospitals in the sample that provided eligibility information based on insurance status, a quarter excluded those with insurance from their financial assistance policies altogether.

Bottom line, if your wallet is a bit light, you better start doing some research so that when you get sick you can find that 600% hospital or you are up a creek with no paddle. And, for those hospitals that exclude any lower income family from financial assistance if they have any insurance at all regardless of the deductible, we, and all those like us, need to start figuring out a way to challenge their tax exempt so-called charitable status.

The Journal was also clear about the hospital rip that starts with the “rack” rates for cares or charge master rates.

Hospitals routinely charge uninsured patients undiscounted “chargemaster” prices, the “rack rates” or list prices of the health care industry, while government and commercial payers receive substantial discounts of 50 percent or more of the chargemaster prices for their members

Yes, you are hearing this right. If you are covered with insurance, your bill is discounted. If you are uninsured and out of luck, your bill is essentially doubled!

The Journal argues that California provided a model that would have been immeasurably better and that has worked well for hospitals and patients in that state.

California’s Hospital Fair Pricing Act… limits how much California hospitals may charge uninsured patients who earn less than 350 percent of the FPL or insured patients whose medical bills exceed 10 percent of household income

Unless a miracle happens in the next several months, like the old song, we’re all going to wish we were living in California. When the doctors of all people in the AMA start calling out hospitals as bloodsuckers, you know we’re in a fight for our lives.

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