In Division Five of Shelby County General Sessions Court Wednesday morning, defendants were jubilant: an attorney for Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare announced that the hospital was dropping dozens of lawsuits filed for unpaid hospital bills.
“I was thanking Jesus,” said Tommy Crawford, who was sued this year by Methodist for more than $5,700 in hospital charges and just over $1,900 in attorney fees. “I know I owed them, but this is a blessing.”
Wednesday marked the second week that attorneys for the nonprofit healthcare system dropped dozens of lawsuits pending a 30-day review of the hospital’s debt collection practices.
The 30-day review, which hospital CEO Michael Ugwueke announced in a June 30 column in The Commercial Appeal, came three days after an MLK50-ProPublica investigation revealed the Christian hospital’s relentless pursuit of debts held by low-income residents and even dozens of its own employees.
The hospital system, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, filed more than 8,300 lawsuits between 2014 and 2018, according to an analysis of Shelby County General Sessions Court records. That’s more than all but one creditor during that five-year period.
One story chronicled the struggle of Carrie Barrett, who makes $9.05 an hour at Kroger, to pay a 2007 hospital bill for just over $12,000. The bill has ballooned to more than $33,000 due to interest and attorney fees. Ordered by the court to pay $100 a month, Barrett, 63, will be 90 by the time she pays off the debt.
Another detailed how Methodist sues its own employees, some of whom make less than $13 an hour. Some of the hospital bills were for care delivered while the defendants worked at Methodist and some for care before they joined Methodist. Its health plan doesn’t allow workers to seek care at hospitals with more generous financial assistance policies.
In court Wednesday, attorney Dewun Settle echoed what his colleague Alan Pritchard said last week.
“Methodist is in the process of reviewing its policies,” Settle told General Sessions Court Judge Betty Thomas Moore. “We are asking the court to drop all the cases… this morning.”
Last week, Methodist dropped more than two dozen cases on the docket.
In a statement sent Tuesday, a hospital system spokesperson said that while the suspension puts a halt on new lawsuits, it “does not affect court proceedings that were already underway. Our outside attorneys have discussed this with the courts and have been advised that because these matters were already set by the court, the appearance must take place as scheduled.”
On Wednesday, Methodist had 59 cases on the docket for hospital bills ranging from just over $500 to more than $13,400.
In court, the judge asked how many were there for Methodist cases. Around 25 people raised their hands. Moore asked how many defendants were there to set up payments with Methodist. More than half raised their hands again.
She told the defendants they would receive paperwork to take to their employers to stop any garnishments. Methodist would contact any defendant it decided to bring back to court, Moore said, advising defendants to make sure Methodist had their correct contact information.
“They’re not going to be collecting or pursuing their cases right now,” Moore said. “On your case, it will show a notation that I made that it is dropped. That means that it’s not completely over with. It just means it’s in limbo.”
“Don’t sit at home wondering what Methodist is going to do,” Moore said.
“You ain’t gotta pay Methodist nothing. You ain’t gotta call Methodist,” Moore continued, as defendants chuckled. “They don’t want nothing from y’all right now. All they want is for y’all to be patient with them while they try to figure out what they need to do.”
“Y’all been blessed today, right?” she asked the defendants. Several responded yes and one applauded.
Outside the courtroom, Anita Humphrey, who was sued for just under $1,500 in 2017, stood in line as Settle handed several defendants a court-ordered stay of garnishment. “This is such a blessing,” she said.
Linda Mitchell was sued in May for about $3,700 in hospital charges, plus $1,200 in attorney fees. Her wages hadn’t been garnished yet, she said, but she worried that that was the next step, since she hadn’t been able to pay.
“I was already behind on my mortgage $11,000 something,” Mitchell said. “This made me feel so wonderful.”
One woman, who declined to give her name, said Methodist had already filed a garnishment order against her.
“I’m not for sure if (Settle) is gonna call and dismiss the garnishment,” she said, adding she had his card and would follow up.
As she headed for the exit, Settle passed her and gave her a thumbs up. “I got you straightened out,” he said.
The woman stood there with her mouth open. “Wow,” she said.
Methodist remains mum
Methodist, which reported $2.1 billion in revenue in 2017, has declined repeated requests for an interview.
In a statement issued last month, Methodist said, “We are committed to ensuring access to quality care and have a hospital in all four quadrants of the greater Memphis area, unparalleled by any other healthcare provider in our region.”
The system also has more than 150 outpatient centers, clinics and physician practices. The statement also said the hospital provides a community benefit of more than $226 million annually.
Coming Thursday: 5 Things Methodist Healthcare Can Do To Fix Their Debt Collection Mess
The Methodist Debt Machine Series
The story that started it all: Methodist Le Bonheur Makes Millions, Owns a Collection Agency and Relentlessly Sues the Poor and everything that came after, here.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project and Community Change.