Linda Burks owed more than $ 4,000 for her breast cancer treatment at St. Dominic, a not-for-profit church hospital in Jackson who hired a debt collector to sue her. Burks works as a full-time receptionist with Medicare who has started taking extra janitorial shifts to pay his bills.
After a series of investigations which the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting product, and the Mississippi Free Press republished in its entirety, a woman who read the series took action. Earlier this month, she hooked up with Burks and paid off her medical debt.
âWe’re supposed to help each other, aren’t we? Wrote the reader, who wished to remain anonymous. “People helped me when I needed it.”
However, St. Dominic Hospital did not change its policies in response to the report.
Burks’ story was part of an investigation into the aggressive debt collection policies of St. Dominic and its debt collectors. Reports revealed that the hospital was billing thousands of Mississippians when these patients should have qualified for free or reduced medical care; inflated patient bills by a third or more with attorney fees, court costs and interest rates by 8%; the wages of the seized patients; money seized from patients’ bank accounts; and sued thousands of patients, many of whom work in low-wage industries like fast food and retail.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the the federal government has given the hospital millions of dollars in pandemic relief funds, but St. Dominic continued to sue patients and even their employees, as the hospital sued over a hundred staff for medical debts.
Burks: âWhat am I doing? “
Linda Burks was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 and received treatment at St. Dominic. She faithfully paid her bill for over a year when she said she noticed that St. Dominic no longer automatically charged from her account.
Burks said she proactively contacted St. Dominic, but was told it was too late – her invoice was sent to the collections. Smith, Rouchon & Associates, a Jackson-based collection agency, started calling him, demanding more money from Burks. The debt collector sued her, adding more than $ 1,500 to her bill for legal fees.
St. Dominic has annual operating expenses of around half a billion dollars and pays virtually no tax due to its nonprofit status. Experts say suing patients for medical debts is only a tiny fraction of a hospital’s income, but the effects can be devastating for patients. For Burks, this meant she was reluctant to return to St. Dominic for treatment because she feared she would be sued again.
âI’m a cashless receptionist, living from paycheck to paycheck,â Burks wrote to a judge in 2018. ââ¦ I want to live, and these tests play a big role for me in whether I stay cancer-free. â¦ What should I do?”
Follow the example of the founder?
In 2019, the Dominican Sisters for St. Dominic’s Health Services sponsorship transferred from St. Dominic Hospital to the Health system of the Franciscan Missionaries of Notre-Dame, whose inspiration, St. Francis of Assisi, was a man born into a wealthy family who gave up his wealth and begged with the poor.
“Let us therefore have charity and humility and give alms because they wash souls from the stain of sins” FranÃ§ois wrote in the 13th century. âFor men lose all that they leave in this world; however, they carry with them the reward of charity and alms which they have given, for which they will receive a reward and a remuneration worthy of the Lord.
When contacted this week, a spokesperson for the Franciscan Missionaries of Notre Dame, the Louisiana-based health system that owns St. Dominic, reiterated that the hospital no longer directly pursues patients, a policy that took place in July.
âWe always want to be compassionate and improve the experience for our patients,â spokesperson Ryan Cross said in an email.
But St. Dominic rarely sued patients directly, relying instead on two local collection agencies to handle the vast majority of medical debt collection lawsuits. The hospital still allows its debt collectors to sue patients, garnish their wages, damage their credit and bankrupt them.
The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting produced the series. Email reporter Giacomo Bologna To firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Giacomo Bologna’s full series on medical billing in Mississippi:
Part 1: Investigation: St. Dominic’s nonprofit hospital routinely sued patients who could not afford care
Part 2: “It broke my heart”: tactics of Saint-Dominique debt collectors cause lasting damage
Part 3: Medical debt lawsuits hurt low-income Mississippians; Here are expert solutions