Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare dropped most of its cases in Division 3 of Shelby County General Sessions Court Wednesday, but for others, set up payment plans for the hospital debts.
Dewun Settle, an attorney for the hospital, told special judge Nina Anderson he was instructed by his client to drop all cases that are pending judgments “due to the fact that we will be suspending collections temporarily on those cases, and anyone that has a motion set this morning, we want to consent to those motions.”
This confused defendant Janet Boyle, who prior to court, made a motion to set up a payment plan.
“I’m curious to know, what are they going to do? Are they stopping collection on any judgment? Will they work with me and dismiss the rest of it, in light of the things that have come out?” Boyle said.
Over the past two weeks in General Sessions Court, Methodist has dropped dozens of cases on the docket. On July 10, Judge Betty Thomas Moore told more than 20 defendants all the hospital’s cases that day were being dropped, adding Methodist would contact them if they planned to take them back to court following a 30-day review of their collection practices.
The 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. The system’s health plan doesn’t allow workers to seek care at hospitals with more generous financial assistance policies.
Some must continue to pay, others get a reprieve
Before the judge entered the chambers, Settle handed court-ordered stays of garnishment to a few defendants, including Boyle. After being notified she would be garnished, she filed a motion to stay the garnishment and set up a payment plan, which Settle accepted, along with all other motions. Boyle is to continue her $100 monthly payment on Aug. 17.
Calls and texts to Settle for comments were not immediately returned.
In February 2016, Methodist sued Boyle for more than $7,000, which Boyle said was for a procedure she had about 10 years ago. She said she’s paid the hospital $3,000 of that balance.
“I had lost my job in 2008, was out of work, like, 14 months, finally got a job. In the meantime, I had to have a stent,” she said. “I started getting all my bills and I asked them to send me the paperwork to fill out for financial assistance. Never got it, never got the paperwork; all I got was my bill.”
She said the hospital took her to court, and she started paying Consolidated Recovery Systems, the hospital-owned collection agency, “faithfully” — but fell behind this year.
“I got behind the last two months. I didn’t make my May payment, and in June, I was four days late, but I caught up May and June,” Boyle explained. “But when I called to make the payment, they told me it had been turned over to garnishment. No warning or nothing… . So I went immediately to get the stay and set up a payment.”
Boyle doesn’t understand why she had to continue to pay when it seems like other defendants do not. She asked Settle about this after court, and he told her to call Methodist’s billing department to get a better resolution, she said.
“They got my insurance money, and they got my $3,000,” Boyle said.
Boyle, who said she works for a printing company, added that she’s already struggling to come up with the money for other medical procedures.
“I’m the working poor,” she said. “Right now, I have a $4,600 deductible. I pay my insurance premiums, but I can’t have my colonoscopy until I come up with $2,000.”
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.