Report blasts Tacoma’s MultiCare for ‘traumatic’ and ‘aggressive’ billing and collections

From The News Tribune (4/8/2015)

Report blasts Tacoma’s MultiCare for ‘traumatic’ and ‘aggressive’ billing and collections

Carmelita Swain’s kids play a lot of sports, so X-rays are a part of life.

What the Tacoma woman didn’t expect was for someone from MultiCare to call her just a week after her two sons were treated at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and demand immediate payment of the $3,000 bill or it would be sent to collections.

“I have Tricare,” Swain said Wednesday, referring to the insurance she receives through the U.S. military as a retired Army medic. MultiCare “told me it wasn’t covered and I had to pay the bill that day.”

Swain’s story was one of a handful featured ina critical report issued Wednesday by Washington CAN, a community organization. The report focuses on two aspects of MultiCare’s collections: “traumatic” point-of-service billing — collecting payment from patients while they’re still in the hospital for treatment — and of “aggressively” garnishing wages and charging unreasonably high interest on medical debt.

MultiCare CEO Bill Robertson said he could not comment on the specifics of Swain’s situation, but that the nonprofit health system doesn’t refer bills to collection until it has sent four bills and made three phone calls over a period of about 120 days.

“That’s baked into our process,” he said. And while he hadn’t seen Washington CAN’s report, he said MultiCare is “always open to being better at what we do.”

MultiCare Health Systems is Pierce County’s largest private employer. It operates five hospitals, 26 primary care clinics and 10 urgent care centers, primarily in Pierce County and South King County. Last fall, it announced plans to cut $300 million in expenses over three years.

MultiCare has not recorded a loss in 10 years, a spokeswoman said last fall. It is profitable — in fact, 2012 was its most profitable year, when it recorded an operating margin of $207 million.

Washington CAN says MultiCare’s drive for profits has taken precedence over caring for the community.

“More people have health insurance than ever,” said Will Pittz, executive director of Washington CAN. “There’s no reason for low-income people to be this aggressively pursued.”

Some of MultiCare’s collection practices came to light last year as part of a lawsuit over improperly filed medical liens. The health system settled the lawsuit last year for $7.5 million. In light of the actions revealed by that lawsuit, a state lawmaker from Tacoma has proposed tightening some aspects of state law. Last week, The News Tribune reported that a Pierce County woman is suing MultiCare, accusing its vendor of charging illegal and excessive fees for providing copies of medical records.

Robertson said MultiCare has a duty to ensure its own financial viability.

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