Memphis University Hospital is a tax-exempt nonprofit whose CEO, Dr. Michael Ugwueke, took home $1.6m last year; the hospital itself makes an operating surplus of $80m/year — and it also sues the shit out of its patients, running its own in-house collection agency and filing more garnishment claims than any other hospital in the state.
Last week, a Propublica expose revealed that the hospital was aggressively pursuing collections from its patients at an unheard-of rate, even when those patients were its own employees, who are paid so little and are so underinsured that they can't afford the bills for the treatment they received in the hospital where they worked (the hospital also aggressively garnished the wages of its own employees to help pay these bills).
Now, in the wake of that expose, the hospital has hit pause on its "collection activities" for 30 days while it is "reviewing our policies and procedures to ensure we are doing everything possible to provide the communities we serve with the care and assistance they need." The hospital refused to say whether this policy only applied to new medical debts incurred over the next month, or whether the 8,000+ former patients who the hospital has sued will also benefit from this hiatus.
While a 30-day hiatus isn't a reform, it's still a testament to the power of investigative journalism to be a force for change in the world (makes me proud to be a Propublia donor!): with the hospital in retreat, we all need to scrutinize its next steps clearly to make sure that this break isn't just an attempt to ride out the news cycle, but is instead the first step towards meaningful changes to horrific practices that betrayed both the hospital and the church it is affiliated with.
United Methodist Church Bishop Gary E. Mueller, a member of the hospital's board, also praised the hospital system for reconsidering. "I am very grateful, though not surprised, that the hospital is taking this opportunity to evaluate the current collection practices as part of its ongoing commitment to faithfully carrying out its mission and the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church," Mueller wrote on Tuesday.
"The healthcare landscape is constantly changing and offers significant challenges for providers such as Methodist LeBonheur, especially as they serve those who struggle financially. However, even as Methodist addresses these very real challenges, I cannot imagine the pain and hurt so many would feel if this outstanding system were not present in the communities it serves."
New data obtained from Shelby County General Sessions Court shows that Methodist has filed more than 600 new lawsuits this year. Its most recent suits were filed on June 21, days before the MLK50-ProPublica stories were published.
Nonprofit Christian Hospital Suspends Debt Collection Lawsuits Amid Furor Over Suing Its Own Employees [Wendi C Thomas/Propublica]
(Image: Methodist University Hospital)