Medical debt has long triggered financial stress and bankruptcies in the United States. Many financially struggling patients remain unaware of hospital charity care programs, or they are overwhelmed by paperwork necessary to qualify. Bills can be hard to decipher and confusing to pay. And when debts end up in court, few defendants have legal help.
By: Bram Sable-Smith / Wisconsin Watch
Posted at 5:35 PM, Dec 21, 2020
and last updated5:35 PM, Dec 21, 2020
WISCONSIN — Alysa Gummow didn’t know what to think in October when the letters from bankruptcy law firms arrived in the mail. She had filed for bankruptcy in 2017 to restructure nearly $50,000 in debt — mostly stemming from a hip surgery two years earlier. But that was resolved. Why was she getting these letters now?
The 37-year-old opened one of the envelopes to learn that Froedtert South hospital said she owed about $1,000 in medical bills. The Kenosha, Wisconsin hospital was suing her to recover costs that her high-deductible health insurance did not cover.
A man visited her home a few days later to make the lawsuit official. He seemed pleasant enough, Gummow recalled, before he delivered the stilted message: “You’ve been served.”
Although the coronavirus was increasingly infecting and killing Wisconsinites — and spiking hospitalizations — the man serving papers from the hospital wasn’t wearing a mask. Still recovering from an April bout with COVID-19 that she called a “nightmare” but “manageable,” Gummow wasn’t concerned about catching the virus. But encountering a stranger without a barrier between them felt odd, so she spoke to him through a window before reaching around the door to accept the legal papers.
In April, Froedtert South said it would make debt lawsuits “rare” during the pandemic. But the hospital has since filed at least 231 lawsuits in small claims court against debtors like Gummow. In fact, it filed more in 2020 than it did in 2019 — 314, compared to 282.
This year’s lawsuits collectively seek to recoup about $1.1 million in alleged debt, ranging from $555 to $9,970 per lawsuit, according to a WPR/Wisconsin Watch analysis of filings in small claims court. At least eight defendants this year filed for bankruptcy, the analysis found.
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