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Lawsuit: Local hospital is 'unfair and deceptive' to some low income patients

KOMO

SEATTLE -- Unfair and deceptive. That's the charge in a class action lawsuit from patient advocates who accuse Northwest Hospital and Medical Center of not screening two low income patients for discounted medical services.

Those patients allege they not only didn't get a discount, but they got turned over to collections.

"I start early, sometimes 5 or 6 in the morning," said Kamal Amireh as he hopped into his Yellow Cab in North Seattle.

He supports a wife and teenage daughter on a cabbie's salary.

"It's not easy any more cause high competition," he said.

He brings in about $1,600 a month -- $1,800 if he's lucky.

He said there's not much left over after paying $1,400 a month in rent. It's a salary that his attorney says qualifies him for Washington Charity Care, where uninsured or under-insured patients by law qualify for free or discounted medical care.

"Instead of screening them for charity care, Northwest Hospital sent their accounts to collections, putting an impossible strain on their already stretched income," said attorney Lili Sotelo with Columbia Legal Services.

With a court judgment in hand, Amireh said a debt collector garnished his bank account three times until his nearly $5,000 bill, including various fees, for an Emergency Room visit for vertigo in November of 2013, was paid.

"I just looked into my account and saw zero," he said.

In a news conference, attorneys announced a class action lawsuit against Northwest Hospital. They alleged Amireh and a second patient are just the tip of the iceberg. They insist the patients should have been screened for charity care eligibility prior to treatment, and that Amireh's case should have been reconsidered when he tried to fight collections.

He alleges he was told it was too late when he went to the hospital to dispute the charges.

"That's not the law. You can continue to get charity care after a collection case has begun," said attorney Matt Geyman with Columbia Legal Services.

Northwest Hospital said it just learned of the suit and is investigating, but added it has financial counselors who regularly work with patients. Last year the hospital said it provided more than $7 million in charity care.

"Today's lawsuit ensures all people who are eligible for assistance receive it," said Sotelo.

Amireh says he was pleased with his care and would even give Northwest a second chance, but hopes his story creates charity care awareness.

"I think that my case maybe will help others to get their rights," said Amireh.

Columbia Legal Services said patients should ask a hospital for charity care application.

Salary income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level qualifies for a medical discount. For a family of four that's an annual income of just less than 47-thousand dollars. And family incomes below 100 percent can qualify for free care.

UW Medicine, which operates Northwest Hospital and Medical Center, says that in 2015 it gave away more than $108 million in charity care, with $60 million of that at Harborview Medical Center.

The entire lawsuit is available online.

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