By Jay Hancock and Carmen Heredia Rodriguez for Kaiser Health News
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Under pressure after Kaiser Health News reported Monday that it sues thousands of patients a year and sends many into bankruptcy, University of Virginia Health System suspended about a dozen patient lawsuits Thursday and said it will announce changes to its billing and collections policy Friday.
Over six years, the state institution filed 36,000 lawsuits against patients seeking a total of more than $106 million in unpaid bills, a KHN analysis finds.
At a weekly session at the Albemarle County Courthouse often dominated by UVA hospital litigation, UVA lawyer Melissa Riley said cases due to be heard Thursday would be withdrawn while the system takes a broader look at its long-standing practice of aggressive debt collection.
The move affects only those cases and changes nothing for thousands of patients who have already lost court judgments to UVA or face other pending lawsuits. And those cases could be refiled later.
“The university is conducting a review and may announce changes to its policies tomorrow,” Riley said.
Several patients in the courtroom and District Court Judge William Barkley said they had no comment.
UVA sued more than 36,000 patients over six years for unpaid bills for more than $106 million, KHN found.
It also seized some $22 million in patients’ state tax refunds, mostly outside the judicial process, as part of a program to help state and local governments collect debts. And it frequently billed uninsured patients for far more than what a typical insurance company would have paid.
Top officials at the health system’s quarterly board meeting Thursday morning were set to discuss billing and collections in a closed session but had little to say about the matters beforehand.
“I’m very concerned” about what KHN reported “and I’m very sympathetic” to patients caught in litigation, said James Murray, a venture capitalist who as rector serves as the head of the UVA Board of Visitors, its governing body.
As usual, the board met in UVA’s classical Rotunda, designed by Thomas Jefferson. UVA is taxpayer- and state-funded. A KHN reporter objected to the closed session, arguing that matters potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of UVA patients should be discussed publicly.
“We’re not going to discuss it in open session,” said Pamela Sutton-Wallace, the UVA Medical Center CEO who will step down in November, the university disclosed Tuesday.
Instead the board, led by L.D. Britt, a surgeon and professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, celebrated a profitable fiscal year and UVA Medical Center ranking again as U.S. News & World Report’s top hospital in Virginia.
Unaudited results presented Thursday showed UVA Medical Center, the core of UVA Health, made an $87 million operating profit on revenue of $1.7 billion in the fiscal year ending in June and held stocks, bonds and other investments worth about $1 billion.
As part of its investigation into billing practices, KHN reported that UVA has the least generous patient financial assistance guidelines of any major hospital system in Virginia. Savings of only a few thousand dollars in a 401(k) account can disqualify even families with very low incomes from UVA aid.
CEO Sutton-Wallace is moving to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in November to become a senior vice president, UVA Health announced Tuesday. Her departure “is in no way related” to the billing and collections problems, UVA President James Ryan said in a message to employees.
New York-Presbyterian did not respond to multiple requests for comment.