Franken hearing on Accretive collectors
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Several Fairview hospital patients Wednesday told of being hit up for debt payments in the middle of various medical crises.
"I was just having so much pain it was hard to process what he was saying but I do recall he said I needed to pay him between $700 and $800," Deb Waldin of Edina said, recalling the day she came to Fairview Southdale seeking help for intense pain that ended up being kidney stones.
"And I said, 'I have insurance. I don't know what you're talking about.' And, to be clear, I didn't have any debt with Fairview."
Her testimony came during a special US Senate field hearing hosted by Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, designed to delve into the broader issue of patient privacy.
The practice first came to light when Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson filed suite against Fairview's third party financial services contractor Accretive Health.
Another patient, Tom Fuller, said he encountered Accretive employees when he returned to a Fairview University Hospital for a follow-up procedure for a lung transplant.
"I just felt badgered. I felt extremely upset," Fuller told Franken, and the packed hearing room.
"He said, 'I'll take a check, credit card, however you want to pay it.' And I said, 'I have no intention of paying you anything right now. I'm going in for a procedure'."
Fuller was up to date on his co-pays, which had amounted to $10,000 already, so he was taken aback to be confronted by a bill collector on hospital grounds.
"There is a time and a place for hospitals to collect money," the Attorney General remarked. "There's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. What Accretive orchestrated at Fairview is the wrong way to do it."
According to Swanson, Accretive not only tried to collect money from patients who were up do date on their payment plans, but turned over 6,000 accounts to debt collection agencies without trying to ask for payments.
"Accretive differentiates itself from other companies with what it calls the 'Accretive Secret Sauce.," Swanson testified.
"One document concedes that typical hospitals don't collect money in the emergency room. It then describes the placement of collectors in the emergency room as one of Accretive's secret sauce ingredients."
Fairview has since ended its contract with Accretive, and pledged to take steps to safeguard against trying to collect debts from patients while they're undergoing care.
"We've stopped collecting past due balances and co-insurance payments in emergency departments," Charles Mooty, Fairview's board chairman and incoming CEO, told Franken.
"To those patients I offer my personal apology, and firm commitment on behalf of the entire Fairview organization to regain your trust."
Franken told the packed hearing room, "It really seems something went very wrong here."
The same patients said they had no complaints with Fairview's actual health care services, but it was the bill collecting efforts that soured their experience.
"When people come to a hospital it's usually a very stressful situation, and you're at your most vulnerable when you're there," Franken added. "It should be about creating a culture where people error on the side of compassion."
Accretive Vice Presiden Greg Kazarian said Swanson's lawsuit provides a skewed version of what Accretive's function was in the Fairview system.
"Unfortunately we've been portrayed in a way that distorts and misrepresents our business and our work," Kazarian asserted. "True debt collection is less than one percent of what we do."
Kazarian said the company's employees devoted most of their efforts to helping uninsured patients qualify for public health coverage and charity care offered by Fairview as a function of its non-profit status.
"We fight to get patients who qualify on to disability so that they can get coverage for the care they need," he said.
"Over 95 percent of the revenue we secure for hospitals come from insurance companies or government payers."
Kazarian contended that its employees were told never to create the impression that service would be denied for nonpayment, and they were supposted ot remeind patients that the coverstation with the debt collector was optional.
Franken pointed out there's nothing in the Accretive scripts that make it clear to patients that it was an optional conversation.
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