Only hospital in N.M. city sues thousands over medical bills, garnishes wages

N.M. city's only hospital sues thousands, garnishes wages over unpaid bills

CARLSBAD, N.M. (CNN) - The only hospital in Carlsbad, N.M., has quite a reputation, and it’s not for great medical care.

Residents say the hospital is notorious for suing its patients, adding in lots of mystery charges and refusing to give itemized bills.

Patients like Donna Hernandez, who manages a hotel, are at its mercy, forced to pay whatever it charges.

Last year when she had the flu and went to the emergency room, she received a bill for $6,000.

“And it was $6,000 for 2 1/2 hours in that hospital,” she said. “I was shocked.”

When patients can’t pay, the hospital will sometimes sue them to collect the money.

An investigation of court records shows that in the past 10 years, Carlsbad Medical center has sued more than 3,000 people to collect debts.

Sometimes, as part of the lawsuit, Carlsbad Medical Center takes money right out of their paychecks.

It happened to Victoria Pena, a teacher’s aide.

“Why would the hospital do that? You know, you’re not just hurting me or making me pay. You’re hurting my husband and my kids and our livelihood,” she said.

Misty Price was a single mom, raising three kids, when she was sued.

She saved stacks of bills and legal papers from her fight with the hospital.

“I had a car repossessed. I almost lost the house," Misty Price said. "I don’t know how it’s going to, you know, support my kids. I mean, it makes you not want to get medical care because, I mean, they’re going to come after you, and I have insurance. I’ve had insurance the entire time.”

She was working three jobs at the time.

Carlsbad Medical Center said it sues as a last resort.

In a statement, the hospital CEO said they sue fewer than one percent of the patients who receive care at the hospital.

“Before initiating a collection suit against anyone we make multiple attempts usually trying to contact our patients ten to twelve times to offer manageable payment plans and additional discounts off of already discounted charges. In many cases patients do not respond to our calls or letters,” the hospital said.

Most other hospitals in the area make a different choice.

Over the past 10 years, Artesia General Hospital, Nor-Lea General Hospital and Lincoln County Medical Center haven’t sued any patients for debt collection.

It’s not known how many hospitals in the U.S. garnish patients wages like Carlsbad Medical Center.

A study in Virginia found that in 2017, 36 percent of that state’s hospitals garnished wages.

Dr. Marty Makary, a physician at Johns Hopkins University and one of the study’s authors, devotes a chapter to Carlsbad Medical Center in his book, “The Price We Pay.”

He describes the hospital’s bill collection efforts as "a disgrace. How does one local community hospital create all this terror and financial hardship to so many people? We talked to a lot of people whose lives have really been ruined financially.”

He added, “Look, doctors and hospitals should be paid fairly. I firmly believe that. But oftentimes these patients are being shaken down with the most aggressive and predatory practices we’ve ever seen in the history of medicine.”

In a statement, Carlsbad Medical Center CEO said absolutely no patient pays the full price for services: “We provide charity care for anyone who qualifies. For those who struggle to pay their hospital bills, we offer additional discounts and reasonable extremely low payment plans.”

Hernandez, who is uninsured, eventually got one of those discounts. Her bill was cut in half, to a little over $3,000.

She said for a simple visit for the flu, it makes her mad.

“It angers me that you would take advantage of people that are in a situation where they need medical care,” Hernandez said.

Many people in town feel like the hospital exploits the fact that they are the only hospital.

“They are going to get every case. Every injury, every accident is going to come right here, and I think they prey on that,” A.J. Price said.

After being contacted by CNN, the hospital said it has a new policy, to stop suing patients whose income is below a certain level.

For example, if a patient is single, the hospital won’t sue if they earn less than about $19,000.

For many other patients, the lawsuits will continue.

Without legal help, patients often lose these lawsuits from Carlsbad Medical Center, putting them in good company with so many others living in the valley.

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