Politics & Government

State sues Tacoma’s St. Joseph Medical Center, saying it illegally withheld charity care

The state is suing Tacoma’s St. Joseph Medical Center for allegedly failing to provide charity care as required by law.
The state is suing Tacoma’s St. Joseph Medical Center for allegedly failing to provide charity care as required by law.

The state is suing St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma for allegedly failing to provide charity care as required by law.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed the lawsuit Tuesday, alleging the hospital withheld charity care from tens of thousands of low-income patients since at least 2012.

Washington state law requires hospitals to let patients know about their option to receive charity health care, which can cover hospital expenses if patients lack the money to pay. The law says hospitals must notify patients that charity care is available and screen them for eligibility.

In a news conference Tuesday in Tacoma, Ferguson said it was clear that St. Joseph’s, a nonprofit hospital, had “lost its way.”

The lawsuit marks the first time the state Attorney General’s Office has filed a consumer protection lawsuit regarding deceptive and unfair practices involving charity care, the agency said.

“These laws exist for a reason: to help ensure that everyone has access to affordable medical care,” Ferguson said at the news conference. “St. Joseph’s conduct is illegal, and harms vulnerable Washingtonians.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said his office is suing the nonprofit hospital for allegedly withholding charity care from thousands of people.

An executive with CHI Franciscan Health, which runs St. Joseph Medical Center, countered Tuesday by saying the hospital provides charity care to more people than the state requires.

“We are disappointed by today's lawsuit and, as always, we'll continue to provide care to absolutely everyone who needs it,” said Cary Evans, CHI Franciscan’s vice president of communications and government affairs, in a prepared statement.

The state’s lawsuit alleges that St. Joseph employees were told not to volunteer information about the hospital’s charity care program and provide applications only if patients requested them, contrary to state law.

The hospital also had a practice of aggressively seeking payment first, before telling patients of charity care options, the lawsuit says.

Patients were asked for multiple documents to prove their income, violating the state law that requires them to show only one document for income verification, according to the lawsuit.

The state further alleges that senior managers at the hospital knew about the problems but didn’t fix them.

Evans, the vice president with CHI Franciscan, said the organization completely covers the cost of care for those whose income is lower than 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

“That is triple the income level required by state law,” Evans’ statement said. “This commitment has resulted in CHI-Franciscan Health providing $20 million in charity care in the last year alone.”

Yet state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said she has heard many of her constituents complain about how charity care cases have been handled by St. Joseph Medical Center. In one case, a patient who also is a St. Joseph employee said her hospital bill was sent to collections while her charity case paperwork was pending, Jinkins and Ferguson said.

“What we really need in Washington is our charitable hospitals to stand up, for St. Joseph’s to stand up, to provide the charity care that they are required to by law, and that they honestly should be morally obligated to, because they’re a charitable organization,” Jinkins said.

Ferguson’s office is seeking restitution for patients who it says were harmed by St. Joseph’s practices. The lawsuit also seeks civil penalties of up to $2,000 per violation.

Beyond that, Ferguson said, his office is looking for St. Joseph to “take an honest look at what’s been going on, acknowledge that they have lost their way.”

“We’re not talking about a few minor tweaks to fix the problem,” he said. “It goes way beyond that.

“It is my hope they acknowledge the problems and set about immediately to correct them.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1