The Elder Law Forum

The Elder Law Forum By Michael Myers Hospital CEO, physician should visit caller

Divorced, widowed, living alone in an apartment on a monthly income of $864, and afraid to answer the telephone.

That is the situation a 70-year-old helpline caller finds herself in. �They keep calling and hounding me,� she said. �I�ve quit answering the phone.� A regional healthcare system that spends millions on marketing its mission of care and compassion had turned over $4,400 worth of its bills to a Shylock-type collection agency.

�I�m not sure what these bills are for,� she said, noting that the collection agency had stacked $2,000 in interest and penalties onto the original bills. �I was divorced five years ago and the settlement agreement said my husband would be responsible for my medical expenses; but, he has since died.�

Her income consists of $814 a month from Social Security, plus $50 from a pension plan. I told her to send a letter to the collection agency advising that I was authorized to represent her in this matter and that I would stand between her and the agency.

She is judgment proof. The hospital cannot attach her Social Security or pension monies. She is a member of the �poor elderly� class. It borders on the reprehensible for a corporate-driven tax-exempt health system to turn loose its collection hounds on this woman. Further, it is cowardly.

It would be more honorable to require hospitals to collect its billings directly from the patients they profess to serve and whose well-being they extol in their marketing. Further, it would be instructive, and certainly empathetic, for the system�s $400,000-a-year chief executive officer and its $230,000-a-year chief financial officer to personally visit this woman in her apartment and demand payment.

Perhaps they could take along a million-dollar-a-year cardiovascular surgeon and a $650,000-a-year anesthesiologist or radiologist. They could share a coffee and tell her why they need part of her social security check.

And, if the phone should ring during their visit, one of them should volunteer to answer it.

(Pro bono legal information and advice is available to persons 55 and older through the USD Senior Legal Helpline, 1-800-747-1895; mmyers@usd.edu)

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