Medical Debt and Deeds: How hospitals use homes to collect debt

WBTV found more than 100 lawsuits filed by Atrium in 2021 against patients to collect on unpaid medical bills.
WBTV found more than 100 lawsuits filed by Atrium in 2021 against patients to collect on unpaid medical bills.
Published: Jun. 13, 2022 at 5:41 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Terry Belk had no plans of coming back to the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. He spent the better part of his adult life causing good trouble in the courts and political system in Charlotte but he had retired from that.

Issues with medical debt forced him to reach out to the WBTV Investigates Team.

“I feel like they’re taking advantage of people. They’re taking advantage of people that can’t afford to fight them,” Belk said.

Dressed in a suit and black shirt, Belk walked into the courthouse to file a response to a lawsuit first brought against him a decade ago. Atrium filed a lawsuit against him for alleged unpaid medical bills of $6,972 dollars for treatment he received in 2010. Within the last month, the lawsuit was refiled to collect on the judgment plus ten years’ worth of interest.

WBTV found six separate deeds of trust records involving Atrium

“I was shocked that they are still coming at me for this bill when they’re getting millions and millions and millions in tax money,” Belk said.

Belk does not back down from a fight. In the 1990′s, he was a leader in the local NAACP, sued Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, and helped bring about the CMPD citizens review board. He once ran for President of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter.

But the lawsuit from Atrium is a new challenge and it’s not even close to the biggest problem hanging over him.

The hospital system has a claim on the roof over his head.

In 2005, Belk and his wife Sandra signed a Deed of Trust with Atrium. Essentially, Atrium has a claim on part of the equity of his home, $23,311 in this case. It’s separate from the lawsuit and altogether puts his debt at about $30,000.

“This means I can’t sell the house without dealing with the deed of trust,” Belk told WBTV during an interview.

“If you sell the house, you owe them money?”

“I owe that money, basically situation I’m in now they basically make me a renter, a homeowner, that’s basically a renter.”

It’s been more than sixteen years, so he doesn’t have all of the medical bills, but Belk says the $23,000 worth of care was for his wife who passed away in 2012 from end-stage metastatic breast cancer.

“I tried to not burden her with that because she would have not wanted to continue medical treatment if she had known that they were going to come so egregiously at us as they did,” Belk said.

WBTV found six separate deeds of trust records involving Atrium, including Belk’s, through the Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds office. We also found dozens of judgments against people that essentially turned into liens on homes that also mention Atrium as a creditor or having a judgment against the person.

WBTV found more than 100 lawsuits filed by Atrium in 2021 against patients to collect on unpaid medical bills.

WBTV previously reported that communities of color in Mecklenburg County suffer double the amount of medical debt in collections than majority-white communities.

“I’m curious to see how many people of color are dealing with them in this kind of predicament,” Belk said.

WBTV asked Atrium those questions, like whether the hospital forecloses on patients’ homes and how much money the system collects from the sale of patients’ properties.

A spokesperson claimed they couldn’t answer questions about Belk because of privacy laws – even though clearly, WBTV’s questions were focused on Atrium’s billing practice, not Belk.

The Atrium spokesperson also provided this link to their website that was in response to a separate WBTV story on medical debt. It does not provide any information on liens, or deeds and only minimal information on when lawsuits are pursued against patients.

“I very well may lose with these people, but they’re gonna know who Terry Belk is. They’re gonna know,” Belk said.

The attorney representing Atrium offered Belk a settlement that would allow him to set up a payment plan and wipe away the interest on the $6,000 on the lawsuit. As far as Belk is aware, it does not address the claim made on his home.

If you have ever had a lien on your home or had to pay part of a medical debt from the sale of your home or property, let us know. Email us at

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