Oneida Health eyes alternatives to liens on medical debts

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ONEIDA — A recent study regarding medical debt in New York found Oneida Health filed 316 liens between 2017 to 2018, but Oneida Health says it’s not done maliciously.

A study by the Community Service Society released this November takes aim at several hospitals that have used the practice across New York.

“This report examines how New York’s nonprofit hospitals secure liens against patients’ homes in the wake of a medical debt judgment, jeopardizing both the physical and fiscal health of their patients,” the report reads. “Between 2017 and 2018, nonprofit charitable hospitals in New York imposed 4,880 liens on the homes of their patients with outstanding medical bills.”

Kevin Prosser, director of marketing and public relations at Oneida Health, said Oneida Health Hospital never has and never intends to pursue a lien in a manner that would result in the sale of a residence.

Under New York State law, nonprofit hospitals may secure liens against a patient’s home after they have prevailed in court in a medical debt case. When a lien is placed on a patient’s home, it gives the hospital the right to secure payment of the debt from the proceeds from the sale of that home before they go to a patient.

According to the report, St. Peter’s Health Partners took the most liens with 955, followed by Northwell Health with 830. These two hospitals accounted for 37% of all liens placed in 2017 and 2018 across New York. Oneida Health accounted for 7% and ranked sixth out of 25 hospitals examined by the CSS.

Prosser said before any claim is filed, Oneida Health makes every effort to provide many solutions to its patients that don’t involve bankruptcy or a lien.

“[We] recognize the uniqueness of every debtor’s financial and personal circumstance,” he said. “This includes checking health insurance coverage to validate authorized services to assisting patients who may not have health insurance in qualifying for coverage to help protect them from personal liability related to receiving medical services. When insurance coverage is not an option, we provide financial aid programs and diverse payment options.”

It’s only after all other options have been exhausted that Oneida Health considers pursuing other collection methods, Prosser said. And in some cases, Oneida Health has no control over when a lien is placed.

“This includes, as a last resort, the decision to pursue a judgment against the debtor,” he continued. “In New York, a real estate lien can arise automatically when a judgment is filed in the County Clerk’s office where the debtor owns their residence. Unless previously disclosed by the debtor, we have no independent way to know if a lien has been created against a debtor’s owned property.”

Prosser said Oneida Health and its partners at the American Hospital Association recognize the hardships faced in the community and the nation as a whole, both socially and economically. To that end, the AHA distributed in April, and later in October, an updated best practices to patient billing guidelines.

“Among many initiatives, this document provides guidelines related to forgoing several collection methods, including the placement of liens against a primary residence,” Prosser said. “Our leadership team has been in the process of evaluating how these new guidelines can be implemented at Oneida Health Hospital moving forward, including the guidelines related to forgoing liens against a primary residence in the future.”

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