MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – More patients are coming forward to say they were victims of aggressive debt collection tactics used in Fairview hospitals.
“It’s hurtful. It really is hurtful,” said Nancy Mihalek of Burnsville.
Mihalek says a debt collector asked her to pay a bill of $150 before her shoulder surgery, one of eight shoulder surgeries she underwent last year.
“I told them, ‘no,’ I said, ‘it’s been a year, this is my right arm, I am right-handed, I need the use of my arm,’” she said.
Severe osteoarthritis has forced her to carry a financial burden. Mihalek says she spent a lot of time at Fairview Ridges hospital in Burnsville, with infections and unexpected complications.
On Tuesday, the Minnesota Attorney General released a scathing report about Accretive Health, a medical debt collection company contracted by Fairview Hospitals and North Memorial.
Attorney General Lori Swanson says Accretive Health debt collectors were embedded in emergency rooms and even came to patients’ beds for money. She says debt collectors had access to patient conditions, and private information such as marital status and religion, all violations of state and federal law.
Doctors and whistleblowers told the Attorney General’s office that Accretive’s tactics may discourage people from getting the medical care they need.
Mihalek says when learned of the Attorney General’s investigation into Fairview’s relationship with Accretive Health, it hit painfully close to home. She says not only did the debt collector ask her to delay surgery, he also told her she had to set up a payment schedule.
“He said, ‘well, I’d have to talk with my supervisor in order to get approval to make payments. You can’t just make payments, you have to make payment arrangements,’” she said.
Mihalek also said she was overbilled and received aggressive prodding at doctor’s visits.
“They were very willing to take a checking number and withdraw it automatically and I said, ‘no, you’re not going to do that,’” she said.
The Attorney General says Accretive used scripts to encourage payment before treatment.
The agency’s report shows the employee is choreographed to say: “If you have your checkbook in your car, I will be happy to wait for you.”
Records show workers even used names of NFL teams to instill a spirit of competition collecting. A Fairview Ridges employee said competition became quite intense, with employees claiming that the “Steelers” were so named, because they “steal” wins.
But the way Nancy sees it, patients suffer the true loss.
“I think it’s childish. I really do. It’s not professional in any way. It was demeaning to me, I’d gone through a lot already,” she said. “It just hit home, that someone else was going through what I went through, probably at the worst time.”
An Edina woman told WCCO last summer she was in a Fairview ER with a very painful kidney stone, when a debt collector came to her bedside and asked for $750. Walden didn’t know it was a debt collector at the time, she thought this person was a hospital employee, and complained about the person on a hospital satisfaction survey.
Fairview has ended their relationship with Accretive, North Memorial’s relationship with the company is still uncertain.
Swanson is hoping that the hospitals fix the problems and feels that issuing fines takes more money away from patients. However, she will refer this case to other state and federal agencies as well.