On Wednesday, community members including nurses from Franciscan Health System visited the office of St. Joseph CEO Syd Bersante, RN to deliver a list of demands and a dozen charity care applications.
St. Joseph—a hospital with profit margins significantly higher than the state average—is located in the Hilltop community in Tacoma, where the per capita income is just over $16,000 annually. As a hospital that receives significant tax breaks, St. Joe’s has a legal responsibility to support its community and provide financial assistance to low income patients who cannot otherwise afford care. So why are so many Hilltop residents facing medical debt, often upwards of tens of thousands of dollars?
Because St. Joe’s is not holding up their end of the bargain. Many patients never find out about the availability of charity care despite their clear eligibility. Those who do are often overwhelmed by the complex application process that requires them to break down their budget into 12 separate items, write a letter explaining how they make ends meet, and provide other hard-to-access documents that prove their income. Patients have a total of 14 days after suffering a medical emergency to provide all this information, most of which is not required by Washington State Charity Care law. In the cases where patients are able to submit all the required documents in time, many report the hospital losing their application or never receiving an eligibility determination. As a result, many patients who qualify for complete or substantial discounts end up with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and are sent to collections.
Franciscan Health System and St. Joseph Medical Center can do better, and Washington CAN members are beginning to take matters into their own hands, helping each other fill out the paperwork when it becomes too confusing to do alone. If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that it shouldn’t be this hard.
In addition to submitting 12 charity care applications (including those of nurses taken to collections by their own employer), these community members delivered a letter to the CEO of St. Joe’s urging the following action:
- Forgive existing medical debt and openly offer financial assistance to patients in need.
- Provide financial assistance for all services, inpatient and outpatient.
- Make the charity care application process easy and available to all.
- Stop subjecting patients to threats and abuse from aggressive collection agencies.
- Be accountable to the community and answer to an oversight committee to assure access to care for everyone.
We are calling on Franciscan Health System and St. Joseph Medical Center to live up to its mission to “emphasize human dignity and social justice” and make financial assistance accessible to all low-income patients. Together, we can hold FHS and St. Joe’s to a higher standard of care for our communities.