Tacoma, Wash. – Washington Community Action Network (Washington CAN!) released a report, Indentured Servitude: Wage and Bank Account Garnishment for Medical Debt at CHI Franciscan St. Joseph Hospital, that outlines the destructive debt collection practices used by St. Joseph Hospital in Tacoma. The hospital claims to be committed to serving the poor and doing no harm, but uses tactics of lawsuits, reporting to credit bureaus, and garnished wages when patients are unable to pay.
“Many of these patients are barely able to make ends meet before being sued and having their wages garnished,”said Washington CAN! Co-Executive Director Mary Nguyen. “The effects of these actions by St. Joseph can be devastating to them and their families and we know low-wage workers and people of color are disproportionately affected by medical debt.”
Washington CAN! field canvass team surveyed nearly 300 residents in the neighborhood around St. Joseph Hospital and found 53% of those surveyed did not even receive a bill in the mail before being sent to collections. It’s a telling survey result that could point to the practice of collections as an automatic result of care. They survey also found 54% of respondents sent to collections were not told about financial assistance, also called charity care, even though the hospital has a charity care program.
“After I had to have a hysterectomy, I had huge bills that I could not pay and my wages were garnished,”said Washington CAN! member Ginny Parham who was treated at St. Joseph. “In the end, I had to file for bankruptcy.”
Bankruptcy is often a route people in medical debt are forced to take to avoid having their wages garnished when they are already struggling to stay ahead. Bankruptcy has many long-lasting consequences including preventing car ownership, home ownership and having a credit card that could be used in emergencies.
“Last year I fell and couldn’t get up and an ambulance took me to St. Joseph. After an examination a doctor told me I was probably bruised.”said Washington CAN! member Maria de Jesus Lozano. “I got a bill for $7,000 without even having any major procedures. Now, I’m in collections.”
The report makes the following recommendations for St. Joseph Hospital:
- Stop garnishing wages and seizing money from bank accounts. This practice contributes to financial and employment instability.
- Stop reporting to credit bureaus. The impact of damaged credit scores affects patients’ ability to obtain housing, buy a house or car and blocks resources for financial stability.
- End all contracts with collections agencies and conduct billing in-house with staff that is more inclined to uphold the St. Joseph’s values.