Most Americans have probably never thought to ask that question upon entering a hospital. According to the New York Times and Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, one debt collector's behavior has made that question a reality. On January 19, 2012, Attorney General Swanson filed a lawsuit against Accretive Health for alleged privacy violations stemming from the company's in-hospital debt collection activities.
What prompted the lawsuit was the carelessness of an Accretive Health employee, who left a laptop with the unencrypted personally identifiable information of over 23,000 patients in a rental car. The laptop was then stolen. From Attorney General Swanson's press release:
"On July 25, 2011, an Accretive employee left an unencrypted laptop containing sensitive information on 23,500 Minnesota patients of two Minnesota hospital systems--Fairview Health Services and North Memorial Health Care--in a rental car after 10 p.m. in the parking area of the Seven Corners bar and restaurant district of Minneapolis. The laptop was stolen. The lawsuit includes a "screen shot" that Fairview sent to a Minnesota patient who requested to know the data about the patient that was on the laptop. The screen shot has personal identity information, such as the patient's name, address, date of birth, and Social Security number. It also includes a checklist to denote whether the patient has 22 different chronic medical conditions and, if so, the condition of the patient. The medical conditions on the "checklist" include three mental health conditions (depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia); HIV; lung conditions like asthma; heart disease like high blood pressure and chronic heart failure; neurological diseases like Parkinson's and seizure disorders; and metabolic disorders like diabetes and hypothyroidism. The screen shot also includes numeric scores to predict the "complexity" of the patient and the probability of an inpatient hospitalization, and a box to describe the "frailty" of the patient."
It turns out that, in addition to intruding on the privacy of patients, Accretive employees and those of other debt collectors will often interfere with patients seeking care in emergency rooms. Since it is difficult for a patient to tell whether the individual is a debt collector or a hospital employee, some patients are left with the impression that they will not be treated unless they pay their past-due bill.
This behavior likely violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which requires that hospitals provide emergency services to all comers. It is also inherently deceptive. These debt collectors are not informing patients that they are debt collectors. This behavior violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits debt collectors from using deceptive behavior to collect a debt.
Although hospitals are often hard-pressed to collect on unpaid bills, allowing debt collection companies into the front door of the hospital is beyond the pale. There are state and federal laws that protect consumers from these kinds of collection tactics. If you are being harassed by debt collectors masquerading as hospital employees, you have rights. In order to best protect those rights, you will need to make the law work for you. The law gives you the right to sue debt collectors for a reason -- state and federal law enforcement officials cannot possibly file a lawsuit for every aggreived consumer.
Don't allow debt collectors to harass you and your loved ones when your stress level is the highest. No matter to whom you owe money, you should be protected from debt collectors in a hospital setting.