South Carolina patient fights back against hospital garnishment, case dismissed

WBTV outlines the process other patients can follow to protest a garnishment filed by a hospital or medical facility.
Henrietta Goode decided to fight back against the hospital garnishing her tax refund to collect on alleged unpaid medical bills.
Published: Nov. 14, 2022 at 5:28 PM EST

BEAUFORT, S.C. (WBTV) - Henrietta Goode has confidence in who she is and what she’s willing to stand up for. She’s willing to admit when she’s wrong, but she’s also willing to pull up her sleeves and fight when she knows she’s right.

That’s what led her into a legal battle against her local medical center, Beaufort Memorial Hospital, that was attempting to garnish her tax refund for an allegedly unpaid medical bill.

“It’s about ethics and your pride, and I refused to give them that,” Goode told WBTV.

Goode has auto-immune problems that force her to frequently visit Beaufort Memorial.

The medical care has helped but it comes at a cost.

In 2021, Goode received a letter from Beaufort Memorial notifying her that they were going to collect on an unpaid medical bill by garnishing her tax refund. The total amount was $2,436.

“It’s sad for the average lower-income person to have to struggle so hard and then they just come along and take it,” Goode said.

For nine months, WBTV has been reporting on how hospitals can garnish South Carolina patients’ money for unpaid bills, using the Setoff and GEAR programs through the South Carolina Department of Revenue.

Over three years, hospitals and medical facilities have garnished more than $390 million from South Carolinians, according to records provided by SCDOR.

Goode had no idea what the bill was for and says a representative from Beaufort Memorial couldn’t identify where the charge came from either but claimed it was from 2019. Ultimately, the hospital argued the expenses were related to a 2016 bill. Goode didn’t receive the notice until 2021.

Goode said she decided the garnishment attempt was worth fighting.

South Carolina state statutes require hospitals garnishing patients for medical debt send a detailed notification of the pending garnishment and the process for protesting the claim.

Previous WBTV Investigations have found hospitals are not always properly notifying patients under state law. In order to assist patients being garnished with the protest and appeals process, WBTV has outlined the steps here.

(Th South Carolina Code of Laws also contains a detailed list of garnishees ability and steps to protest under SECTION 12-56-62.)

1. File a protest with the Claimant Agency (Hospital/Medical Center)

a. The written protest must be mailed to the Claimant Agency. If you did not receive a notification, send the letter to the hospital address with “ATTN: Setoff/GEAR Coordinator.” Include the following information in your written/typed protest.

b. Your name.

c. Your address.

d. Your social security number.

e. The type of debt in dispute.

f. A detailed statement of all reasons you disagree with the debt amount or dispute that you owe the debt.

g. Patients have 30 days after receiving the garnishment notice to file the protest.

2. The Claimant Agency is then required to schedule a hearing on your protest. The hearing officer is appointed by the claimant/hospital and determines whether or not the patient owes the amount being garnished. The hearing officer most notify SCDOR of the outcome of the hearing before any amount can be garnished.

3. If the hearing officer finds the debt is valid, patients can still appeal the decision to the South Carolina Administrative Law Judge Division. Patients have 30 days after the claimant agency hearing to file an appeal with the ALJ.

Goode followed all the steps. The Beaufort Memorial hearing officer found that the debt was valid. The hearing officer in Goode’s case is an executive at Beaufort Memorial and has served on the board of trustees.

“This doesn’t seem very fair because if you work for the hospital and you work for GEAR, then I don’t stand a chance,” Goode said.

But Goode appealed the ruling to the state’s Administrative Law Judge Division. Before she ever got the hearing, she says the hospital’s attorney contacted her to settle and wipe away the debt.

Records obtained by WBTV from SCDOR show know hospital has faced more patient protests than Beaufort Memorial, 252 since 2020. The hearing officer found 66 of those patients did not owe the debt, according to the SCDOR records.

In a statement emailed to WBTV a spokesperson for Beaufort Memorial wrote they couldn’t disclose Goode’s financial and billing info due to HIPAA. They claimed they only garnish medical bills “after more than a year of a patient not responding to repeated attempts to settle their accounts.”

“Each account is individually reviewed multiple times prior to being considered for submission to GEAR. As noted above, there are multiple opportunities for individuals to review charges with a patient financial services representative and dispute any potential errors,” the spokesperson wrote.

“From 2019-2022, Beaufort Memorial sent close to 85,000 accounts to the Department of Revenue for assistance with collections. Less than 1% of the accounts sent to GEAR have been protested. Less than 1% of those protests have resulted in removal from the GEAR program with “no debt owed” because the individual agreed to set up a payment plan with Beaufort Memorial after their hearing or it was determined that there was a billing error.”

Beaufort Memorial patients can also review financial assistance and payment plans on the hospital website.

Good says her situation proves that South Carolina patients can also protest the medical debt garnishments done by hospitals across the state.

“I now know that other people can do it too,” Goode said.

“It’s a fight, this is a battle, it’s intimidating, but if you just stand up and fight back then they’ll kind of bend.”