Organizing the Debtors to Hold Hospitals Accountable

florence-nightingale-activist-the-very-first-requirement-in-aHouston      Ok.  We’re all clear that nonprofit hospitals now have to back off of the bully-boy tactics involved in debt collections for lower income and working families drowning under the costs of hospital emergencies with inadequate insurance and resources.   We’ve talked about the fact that the Treasury Department and the IRS have put into effect as of January 1, 2015 new rules saying that you have to try to evaluate and mitigate the situation before going to court or you lose your tax exemption.  Furthermore, private hospitals are likely the next in line, so the problem is how are we going to make that happen?  In an earlier report,  I recommended that we organize immediately on this issue, but how?

Mike Gallagher, a long time comrade and friend, now semi-retired from an SEIU local union in Boston, after reading my report reminded me of a campaign he, Bill Pastreich, and others had been involved in on Cape Cod year ago.  The union had an excellent contract with the Cape Cod and Island’s hospital, but also noted that the hospital was seizing the homes of some of the folks for medical debts.  They got the list of people from the courts who were having these troubles, organized – with some difficulty admittedly – the debtors to protest the seizures and shamed the hospital into backing off of taking the homes in a big victory at the time.

Fast forward to the 21st century and Brother Gallagher sent me a message later in the day that thinking more about my report and the old Massachusetts campaign, he had emailed a reporter with ProPublica, where in these modern times they tend to add the reporter’s email to their byline, about a story he read online about Heartland Hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri, that was doing the same thing now.  He wanted to know how the reporter had gotten the leads and had he used the same kind of list that the union organizers had painfully assembled years ago.  Oh, no, he was told.  It was all on-line now.   You just had to track the records through the name of the hospital’s debt collector, and, bam, there it was.  Sadly, the reporter shared privately, that particular hospital had its collectors file 49 cases since the first of the year on an average of 4 per day.  Clearly, the new regulations are not intimidating the likes of what Mike called, “Heartless” hospital in St. Joe.

But, Mike’s memory and quick work, are more than enough to provide all organizers and most advocates and others a quick map on how to push back these hospitals immediately, take hard and dramatic action with effective organizing, and push these so-called nonprofits back across the bright line that these new federal rules are trying to draw and make them do right for working people.  Good organizing is not just the brilliant insight or the attentive ear to new issues and nuances, it is also knowing when someone has a winning plan that it’s time to replicate that and take it downtown in as many places as you can muster.

Time to roll up some sleeves and get hospitals to do right for low and moderate income people.  We have to remind them that these are their patients, not just random folks, and that they also have to subscribe to the motto, “do no harm.”

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