Charlotte woman on the hook for $40,000 in medical bills from lawsuit she didn’t know about
WBTV Investigates: Woman turning to food bank, charities to make ends meet
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Patricia Durham’s budget is tight. She lives off of her $1,200 monthly social security check. After she pays her mortgage, she said, she barely has enough to live off of.
So she was stunned when a sheriff’s deputy showed up at her door with a lawsuit saying she owed more than $40,000 in unpaid medical bills for a hospital stay more than a decade ago.
Durham is the latest Charlotte-area resident to call WBTV after experiencing problems with tens of thousands of dollars in debt from life-saving medical treatment they received.
Her situation raises new questions about hospitals’ responsibility to provide charity care for people who are stuck with years-old unpaid bills.
Durham reached out to WBTV after seeing several other stories with people sharing their experience defending against lawsuits from hospitals.
She said she only recently learned she was being sued when a deputy served her with the court paperwork in 2021.
“I was shocked because I felt like, they served me this now? When all of these years I thought it was taken care of,” Durham told WBTV.
Durham went to the emergency room at Carolinas Medical Center more than a decade ago. A doctor diagnosed her with kidney failure. She can’t remember how many days she spent in the ICU unconscious.
“The doctor said there wasn’t nothing else he could do with me. I had to call my family in,” Durham said.
Miraculously, she recovered. Facing astronomical medical bills, Durham said she paid a dollar down on two different accounts with CMC, now Atrium Health, and then went to a social service organization she thought would help her pay the debt. She said she gave the organization her bills and, for the last ten years, thought the balance had been taken care of.
That was until she was served the 2021 lawsuit filed against her by Atrium Health/Charlotte Mecklenburg Hospital Authority.
WBTV pulled the lawsuit from the courthouse and found that Durham was originally sued for the unpaid medical bills in 2011. In North Carolina, judgements expire after ten years so hospitals and other creditors often refile the lawsuit to keep them active.
Durham said she was never served in 2011 and had no idea about the lawsuit. The most recent lawsuit does not contain a record of Durham being served in the 2011 case.
Collections defense attorney Rashad Blossom said that raises some red flags.
“We refer to those as due process concerns,” Blossom told WBTV.
Blossom said not many people reach out for legal representation about medical debt but there are some avenues to challenge the collections or at least reorganize the bills into a more realistic schedule to pay back the creditor.
“Bankruptcy does afford you the option of restructuring the debt,” Blossom said.
“You could have a payment plan to deal with the lien, and after which you’ve completed this payment plan, perhaps whatever you have not paid will then be discharged.”
But Blossom said even that option is limited because of the hot housing market. Judgements on debt are essentially liens filed against a person’s most valuable asset, often their home.
“Anybody who has a judgment, a lien, against your property, if you’re not paying up, they could force you to sell it,” Blossom said.
WBTV sent an email to Atrium Health asking if the hospital authority has forced a sale or foreclosure any time in the last ten years.
A spokesperson, sent an email saying “To be clear, Atrium Health does not execute on liens and foreclose on property.”
Blossom says the liens can still be used to collect the debt upon sale of a home. Atrium Health did not answer WBTV’s question asking how much money the hospital system has collected from judgements and liens.
Durham is not aware of any attempts to force a sale, but she said the attorney representing Atrium Health in the lawsuit contacted her about setting up a payment plan.
According to the lawsuit, she owes more than $41,000 in unpaid medical bills and more than $6,000 in attorney fees.
Durham is 73 years old. Her husband is passed. The Mecklenburg County Assessor’s Office values her home at $140,000.
She told WBTV the only income she gets is from social security.
“I only get $1,200 a month,” Durham said.
“I don’t get that much after I pay my mortgage and I’m barely trying to make it. I’ll be running down there to Crisis (Assistance Ministries) trying to get help and the food bank and stuff.”
“It probably does not make sense for her to go on a payment plan that she’ll never finish,” Blossom said.
On its website, Atrium Health advertises several different financial assistance and charity care programs available to patients with, and without, insurance. WBTV has previously reported on gaps between hospitals offering charity care and what is actually provided to patients.
Durham told WBTV she was never informed about financial assistance options while she was in the hospital and that hasn’t changed since she learned about the lawsuit.
WBTV asked Atrium Health if they offer any financial assistance to patients who they’ve already sued. A spokesperson wrote in an email “Each patient’s financial situation can change quickly or over time and we have teams dedicated to working with them to determine if financial assistance is available for their specific scenario. This can be in the form of full or partial forgiveness of balances, discounts or establishing an interest-free payment plan that works for the patient.”
The spokesperson also provided a link to this guide posted on our their website “to better understand how we attempt to work with patients who may have financial hardship.”
Durham said she had no idea where to go for help when she started navigating the lawsuit. She says she refused to respond and court records show the hospital was awarded a default judgement.
“I’m glad you came out and we had this talk because, when I got served, I felt like now who can I turn to?” Durham said to a WBTV reporter.
“I don’t have nobody to turn to about this to talk to about this, so I’m glad you came.”
If you’re struggling with medical debt issues you can turn to the WBTV Investigates Team. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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