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Lawsuits for unpaid medical bills are up in Wisconsin; what to do if you’re sued

Medical debt could land you in court.
Published: Dec. 14, 2021 at 6:47 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 14, 2021 at 7:43 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Wisconsin hospitals are suing patients for unpaid medical bills. A new research study found a 37 percent increase in lawsuits filed against Wisconsinites from medical providers.

Researchers at Yale and Stanford Universities compiled data from Wisconsin’s court records. The study looked at lawsuits from 2001 to 2018. Zach Cooper, associate professor at Yale is a co-author of the study. He says Wisconsin was chosen because it’s easy to access state court records.

“That meant we could go take a peak, figure out who’s doing the suing, and produce a research paper,” said Cooper.

This study is a first step to a larger nationwide research project.

“My colleagues and I have been doing a bunch of work on really the costs of healthcare for individuals and we were really interested in this question of how often hospitals are suing patients,” said Cooper.

Wisconsin was also chosen because the state is one of a handful in the nation that has not expanded Medicaid coverage.

“We know Medicaid coverage lowers the burden of unpaid medical bills,” said Cooper.

KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THE RESEARCH:
  • Half of the lawsuits filed resulted in garnished wages
  • Black patients and Wisconsinites in rural areas were sued at higher rates
  • Data shows non-profit hospitals filed the most lawsuits

Cooper says not every Wisconsin hospital is suing patients for unpaid bills. He says the lawsuits are occurring frequently among select providers.

“We as a country and Wisconsin as a state gives tremendous benefits to non-profit hospitals. Some are not even paying property taxes so why are they suing patients? said Cooper.

Cooper says while all hospitals deserve to be paid for their services, lawsuits and wage garnishments put vulnerable patients in difficult situations, especially during a pandemic. He says while the data only shows 2018 as the most recent year, it’s likely the trend in increased lawsuits has continued.

“The more folks are under financial pressure, the more folks have trouble paying their medical bills so it really reflects gaps in insurance coverage and for a lot of hard working Americans, their wages have really not kept up with the price of everything they need to afford,” said Cooper.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE HAVING TROUBLE PAYING A MEDICAL DEBT:
  • Don’t ignore it. Communicate with the medical provider and try to negotiate your balance.
  • Ask for payment assistance options
  • Ask about monthly payment plans
  • Make sure any billed insurance is correct

Sarah Orr, Director of UW-Madison’s Consumer Law Clinic says if you are sued for an unpaid medical bill, be sure to have the debt validated and check to see if the provider will accept a settlement amount for what you can afford.

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