Home Debt Upstate hospital suspends filing new medical debt lawsuits as governor seeks partial ban

Upstate hospital suspends filing new medical debt lawsuits as governor seeks partial ban

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Syracuse, NY — Upstate University Hospital is pausing its decades-old practice of suing patients for unpaid medical bills, the hospital confirmed to syracuse.com | The Post-Standard.

The Syracuse hospital hasn’t sued anyone for medical debt in the first three weeks of 2024, court records show. By comparison, Upstate sued 73 people in the first three weeks of 2023 and ended up suing more than 1,500 times for the whole year.

The Syracuse hospital said the pause was in response to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s recent proposal to ban such lawsuits against poor people. Hochul also wants to scrap a little-known rule that compels state hospitals to refer any long-overdue medical bills of $2,500 or more to the state Attorney General’s Office for legal action.

“Upstate appreciates the governor’s recent response to the issue of medical debt and increasing financial assistant to patients,” the hospital said in a statement Friday to syracuse.com | The Post-Standard. “At present, Upstate has asked the Office of the Attorney General to suspend filing new medical debt related lawsuits.”

Upstate’s move also comes weeks after a syracuse.com | The Post-Standard investigation showed that the state-run institution was the only hospital in town that still sued its patients over medical debt. Neither Crouse nor St. Joseph’s hospitals have sued over medical debt since 2020. Upstate has sued more than 1,500 people in that time.

An analysis by the Community Service Society of New York found that state-run hospitals in Syracuse, Brooklyn and on suburban Long Island were responsible for nearly 75% of medical debt lawsuits filed by hospitals statewide in 2022. It’s a practice that preys upon poor people who cannot pay their bills and rarely collects enough to be effective. The state’s private hospitals have largely abandoned going to court over such debt.

Hochul has proposed banning such lawsuits by any hospital — state-run or private — against any patient who makes less than 400% of the poverty line. That’s $58,320 for a single person or $120,000 for a family of four.

But Hochul’s proposal must be approved by the Legislature during this year’s budget process for the practice to stop for good.

In fact, the state-run Stony Brook hospital has kept going despite the governor’s proposal, with the AG suing 36 more patients Friday on the hospital’s behalf, court records show.

State lawyers working for Upstate last filed lawsuits against three patients on Dec. 29, including one patient for $2,701, court records show.

Neither Hochul’s proposal nor Upstate’s decision has any impact on lawsuits already filed by the AG. For now, ongoing lawsuits remain open and those sued can still have court judgments issued against them, making it harder to get a loan, find a place to live or get a new job.

But Upstate indicated it is prepared to take more action in the future.

“Upstate will monitor the legislative process and will be prepared to implement policy changes that are adopted in the final state budget,” the statement concluded.

Staff writer Douglass Dowty can be reached at [email protected] or (315) 470-6070.

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