Hundreds of patients surprised by lawsuit filed by now non-existent hospital

August 17, 2021

Tennova Healthcare-Lebanon in Tennessee isn’t a hospital anymore. It doesn’t exist after Vanderbilt University Medical Center being bought out. But that didn’t stop Hope Cantwell from getting a notice that she was being sued by the non-existent entity.

The story begins in May 2019, when Hope was admitted for a short stay at the Tennova Healthcare- Lebanon hospital. At the time, according to NPR, the hospital was owned by Community Health Systems. Her insurance covered all but $2,700 of her bill. When she went to pay it nearly a year later, she couldn’t find the hospital or its payment portal online.

It turns out that Community Health Systems had downsized from more than 200 hospitals to 84. The company rapidly grew and took on massive debt, and the downsizing helped stabilize finances.  However, when Community Health Systems’ stock plummeted over concerns about its corporate debt, the company decided to boost its bottom line by suing patients for bills not paid.

By 2020, and in the midst of the pandemic, Hope received calls from lawyers representing the former hospital owner, threatening to take her to court over the unpaid bill. They even showed up on her doorstep. But she had been furloughed from her job and didn’t have the cash.

WPLN News founds that Tennova Healthcare-Lebanon sued more than 1,000 patients, including Hope Cantwell, over two years. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed during the pandemic, despite many other companies choosing not to take patients to court for unpaid medical debt.

“Community Health Systems, in all of our research of hospital pricing and billing practices, stands out as an aggressive institution that uniformly, across the country, engages in very aggressive predatory billing — suing patients in court to garnish their wages,” said Marty Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins, in his book about healthcare billing, The Price We Pay.

Christi Walsh, a nurse practitioner who directs clinical research at Johns Hopkins University, wants hospitals to stop suing patients.

“These aren’t rich people who don’t want to pay their bills,” Walsh says. “These are people who don’t have the money to pay it.”

As for Hope, she chose to use her stimulus money to start paying Community Health Systems because she couldn’t justify trying to find an attorney or fighting the company.

“I don’t have the resources and emotional and mental capacity to handle anything more than just kind of rolling over and handing over whatever amount of money they would be happy with,” she says.

Community Health Systems provided a statement to WPLN News, stating it used COVID-19 relief money to pay for pandemic expenses and make up for lost revenue. As of January, the company added, it will only take patients to court if they earn at least twice the federal poverty level —$53,000 for a family of four. The company said it will withdraw litigation for anyone who doesn’t fit that metric.