State lawsuit accuses Tacoma's St. Joseph Medical Center of withholding charity care

State Attorney General alleges repeat violations of Washington's Consumer Protection Act.  KOMO photo

A lot of people don't know that by law, every hospital in this state is required to let you know about your right to apply for charity care if your income qualifies.

But state Attorney General Bob Ferguson says St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma didn't just ignore the law, it aggressively trained employees to withold charity care information altogether.

Ferguson filed a lawsuit against St. Joseph on Tuesday, alleging that tens of thousands patients at CHI Franciscan Health's flagship facility were intentionally, and illegally denied information about their rights.

"St Joseph placed obstacles in the way of thousands of individuals in need of affordable health care," said Ferguson at a Tacoma news conference Tuesday.

The Attorney General says his team started investigating St. Joseph Medical Center in January of 2016 - after receiving complaints from patients and employees about the Tacoma facility's charity care practices.

Under the state's Charity Care Law all hospitals must provide free care to patients with very low income and discounts to other low income patients.

Patients must be given both verbal and written disclosure about the charity care program

and be screened for eligibility, based on federal poverty guidelines.

"St. Joseph made no effort to screen for charity care with their patients," said Ferguson. "One former employee reported they were told to, and I'm quoting from the former employee now, they were told to quote, 'Never volunteer information about St. Joseph's Charity Care program to patients, even if they were obviously low income or homeless.'"

Ferguson says his investigators also dicovered some patients were required to produce multiple documents to verify their income, when state law says only one document is required.

The alleged practices fly in the face of CHI Franchisan Health's own published committments to patient rights, financial assistance, and it's mission to advocate for the poor and vulnerable.

State investigators say the medical centers management repeatedly ignored employee complaints- and only took action once the state got involved.

"Senior managers within St. Joseph, knew about complaints assocated with these illegal practices, knew they were a problem, and did not correct them," Ferguson said.

The state stresses its lawsuit is only against CHI Fransciscan Health's Tacoma facility. The lawsuit seeks restitution for patients plus civil penalties of up to $2,000 per violation.

A spokesperson for CHI Franciscan Health provided the following statement by email in response to the state's lawsuit against St. Joseph:

"As a nonprofit charitable organization, we are committed to providing the highest quality care to everyone who needs it. We carefully consider all charity care applications we receive and approve all who qualify. We completely cover the cost of care for people whose income is lower than 300% of the federal poverty level. That is triple the income level required by state law. This commitment has resulted in CHI Franciscan Health providing $20 million in charity care in the last year alone. We are disappointed by today's lawsuit and, as always, we'll continue to provide care to absolutely everyone who needs it." - Cary Evans, Vice President, Communications & Government Affairs, CHI Franciscan Health

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