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Attorneys: Patients Entitled To Free Health Care Are Getting Sued By Debt Collectors Instead

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Patients say Northwest Hospital in Seattle didn't assess their eligibility for charity care before billing them.

Hospitals in Washington are required to serve patients even if they have no way to pay. But a public interest law firm says many duck their obligations by failing to screen patients for eligibility. Now they’re bringing a class-action lawsuit against a hospital in Seattle.

The legal team representing Kamal Amireh say he’s typical of thousands of patients at Northwest Hospital, and many more at hospitals around the state. Amireh checked in to the emergency room in November of 2013, complaining of vertigo. He was diagnosed with an ear infection, treated and sent home. Soon after he found himself being sued by a collection agency for more than $4,000.

“It’s a big headache, and it’s the first time I’ve been in this situation that they ask me to pay the full amount of money. So I am confused and troubled about it,” Amireh said.

Amireh’s lawyers say he should never have been billed for the full amount. They say Amireh is uninsured and earns less than twice the federal poverty level, so he should have qualified for free or discounted care. But Amireh’s lawyers say, in his case and others’, the hospital didn’t check.

“They were never asked, ‘What’s your income?’ ‘What’s your family size?’” said Matt Geyman of Columbia Legal Services. “They were asked questions about whether they had insurance. But what they weren’t asked was the information that the hospital needed to figure out if they qualified for charity care.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers are suing to force the hospital to assess patients’ eligibility for charity care before they send a bill. They hope other hospitals would follow suit.

A statement provided by UW Medicine, which runs Northwest Hospital, says they remain committed to treating patients regardless of their ability to pay, and that they offer financial counseling to help patients find resources, including charity care.

In 2014, Northwest Hospital provided charity care worth less than 2 percent of its total patient revenues, which is about in line with the statewide average.