Local Group Asks Johns Hopkins Hospital to End Lawsuits Against Poor

Johns Hopkins Hospital has been accused of targeting low-income and Black patients with financially crushing lawsuits over unpaid medical debt and the Coalition for a Humane Hopkins is working to change that.

In May, the coalition joined forces with the AFL-CIO and National Nurses United to release a report on Johns Hopkins’ propensity to file lawsuits in Maryland that target low-income patients. The report found that the median debt among former patients was $1,438 and that many of the patients qualified for reduced or charity care payments.

Dr. Marisela Gomez and Father Ty Hullinger, who are working with the coalition, spoke to The North Star about what the coalition is doing to combat these lawsuits and to educate the public on the damage the hospital has caused to the community. Gomez explained that the coalition is made up of people who have been directly impacted by the medical debt lawsuits, as well as members from neighborhood organizations. The organization has used social media to pressure the hospital and is planning a rally in July to demand the stop the use of “economic and political power from continuing [the] exploitation of the most vulnerable.”

The Coalition for a Humane Hopkins has called on Hopkins to stop medical debt lawsuits and establish a system that assesses patient eligibility for charity care.

Gomez acknowledged that the hospital has provided health care and jobs to the people of Baltimore. “It is an economic anchor in the city and state,” Gomez told The North Star. “However, in its process of building its reputation in these areas, it has not been a good neighbor. It has physically expanded into the land of its neighbors since its first buildings were constructed.”

Gomez said people have been displaced as Hopkins has expanded and have also given the hospital “a natural laboratory to research and teach and provide clinical care and report and gain a reputation.” She said that this was only possible because the hospital is located in a historically marginalized, under-resourced, Black community with major health disparities.

“Johns Hopkins’ use of medical debt lawsuits against our most needy families obviously brings immediate suffering to the patients who are sued and to their families,” Father Ty added. “The hospital often garnishes their wages and sometimes seizes their bank accounts, and this can quickly lead to evictions and other harmful conditions.”

Father Ty told The North Star that the issue was also one of racial injustice because the lawsuits “fit into a long-term pattern of active displacement of people of color living in neighborhoods near the hospital.”

“The aggressive pursuit of medical debts against working families becomes just one more tool Hopkins can use to force families into displacement from their homes by creating more economic instability in their lives,” the pastor said.

“It’s like this hospital is doing everything it can to try and force poorer families to move or be moved away from their downtown campus. It’s like this hospital forgets that it was founded to serve all Baltimoreans, but especially those who are the most in need.” The North Star previously spoke to former patient Mary Scott, who said she visited Johns Hopkins’ emergency room in October 2016 for a case of bronchitis. Scott, who was uninsured at the time, said the hospital never told her she was eligible for charity care.

The former patient said she was unaware of her medical debt until she was sued. She initially made payments to pay the debt but was ultimately forced to file for bankruptcy. Gomez highlighted the fact that the hospital routinely failed to inform patients they qualified for charity care.

“People should know that when our tax dollars are given to institutions like Johns Hopkins Hospital, and any other hospital, to provide charity care, these institutions need to do so,” Gomez said. She said that people should know that institutions “regularly” don’t fulfill their responsibilities regarding charity care and that they then sue patients who are eligible for charity care when they are unable to pay their medical debt.

“People should know that prestigious, powerful institutions should be held accountable to the people when the government gives them our tax dollars to serve the people,” Gomez added.

In a previous statement to The North Star, Johns Hopkins Hospital said that it was the hospital’s practice to inform patients about its programs for free and discounted services. “For patients who choose not to pursue those options or who have a demonstrated ability to pay, we make every effort to reach out to them and to accommodate their schedule and needs. In those rare occasions when a patient who has the ability to pay chooses not to, we follow our state required policies to pursue reimbursement from these patients.”

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.