We the Patients

They Took My Retirement Funds Over a Medical Bill: Ms. Ellis’ Story

Retired from government work since 1997, Ms. Ellis’ greatest joy is spending time with her daughter and granddaughter in their Queens home. When her retirement funds stopped coming in over an unpaid medical bill she never received – for a procedure she didn’t remember having – her family also became her fiercest advocates.

Following a heart attack in 2015, Ms. Ellis’ blood count became dangerously low. Her granddaughter rushed her to the nearest emergency room for treatment, where she was admitted to Long Island Jewish Hospital, part of the Northwell health system. While inpatient, a physician performed an endoscopy to confirm she was not bleeding internally. Ms. Ellis’ granddaughter remembers a second doctor briefly looking down her grandmother’s throat, but Ms. Ellis did not.

Rather than bill her primary insurance, Medicare – which would have covered the procedure – the doctor billed her secondary, was denied, and sent the bill directly to Ms. Ellis instead. However, she never received it. The bill arrived at the correct building, but listed no apartment number.

Fast-forward several years later, to August 2021. Ms. Ellis was shocked to learn that her retirement funds were garnished from her bank account, an aggressive debt collection move employed by major hospital systems in New York, Northwell in particular. After Ms. Ellis didn’t pay the bill she never received, a default judgement was entered against her. Even though garnishing federal benefits is prohibited under federal law, the collection attorney did it anyway.

Luckily, Ms. Ellis’ quick-witted granddaughter who works for a court in Brooklyn, was on the case. “It’s a blessing to have my granddaughter.” Said Ms. Ellis. “Once she got involved, I knew she was going to find out what was going on.”

She researched the attorney who had arranged for her retirement to be garnished, finding a string of other devious practices to collect on unpaid medical bills from patients. According to Ms. Ellis’ daughter Claudia, “he probably thought she wouldn’t have any support system and they could just get the money. A real shyster.”

Thanks to the fast work of Ms. Ellis’ daughter and granddaughter to file the appropriate documents with the bank, Ms. Ellis started receiving her retirement funds again in a few days.

As for the unpaid bill, the attorney tried to argue that Ms. Ellis had received it – which was simply untrue. “He just lied,” Ms. Ellis said. “It was terrible.” Community Health Advocates accompanied her to her latest hearing in September 2021, and was able to help get her case discontinued and her funds no longer pursued for garnishment. “Had they billed the right insurance in a timely fashion, they could’ve gotten paid.” Said Claudia. “Now, they didn’t get a dollar.”

New York’s non-profit hospitals can seize up to 10% of a patients’ wages to collect medical debt, an aggressive tactic that puts the health and well-being of low-income New Yorkers at risk.

The Community Service Society’s latest research reveals that five of New York’s nonprofit hospitals garnished the wages of 2,216 patients – between 6% and 46% of lawsuit cases – over unpaid medical bills. Disproportionately, these folks work low-wage jobs in health care and social services, manufacturing, and retail. Meanwhile, the hospitals we investigated reported providing only $6 million in financial assistance despite receiving $19 million in state funding meant to cover the costs of patients who can’t afford their care.

A bill recently passed in the New York State legislature (S6522A/A7363A) would ban hospitals from garnishing patients’ wages or imposing liens on their primary residence. Advocates and lawmakers are pushing for Governor Kathy Hochul to sign.

Have a story to share about your health care experience? Contact us at wethepatients@cssny.org.

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