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A Clarksville Hospital Has Sued 750 Patients This Year. Its Co-Owner Didn’t Know Until Now

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Stephen Jerkins | WPLN (file)
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Court records compiled by WPLN News show that Clarksville’s sole hospital has sued more than 9,000 patients since for-profit giant Community Health Systems took over in 2010. And 750 of those suits have been filed since bringing on a co-owner, Vanderbilt University Medical Center — which has a policy against suing patients.

Just in the month of July, Tennova Healthcare Clarksville sued 60 patients. Jennifer McCrobie was one of them. She works in a factory to support her five kids.

“They can’t bleed this turnip much further than it’s being bled,” she says.

Last year, McCrobie drove herself to the emergency room after work with a wicked stomachache. After a round of tests, she learned she needed surgery to remove her gallbladder.

McCrobie has insurance through her job, but it still left her with $15,000 to pay out of pocket — a debt on top of other debts she was already struggling with.

After the hospital bills went unpaid, her phone started ringing all the time as bill collectors representing the hospital tried to reach her.

“I even offered to pay once,” she says. “They were just relentless.”

And then came the letter in April informing her they could take her to court and garnish her paycheck. Court records show the suit was filed July 2, but she’s still awaiting a summons with the date to appear.

New partner wants policy review

WPLN News has been investigating Community Health Systems, which has made it part of its business model to take patients to court. The company even sues patients of hospitals it no longer owns. And when CHS took over the hospital in 2010, with the purchase of former owner Triad, the lawsuits began — with dozens filed every month.

More recently, the publicly-traded company been in financial trouble itself and selling hospitals to make its own debt payments. In a deal struck last year, Vanderbilt agreed to buy two facilities and take a minority stake in the Clarksville hospital. The sale was finalized Jan. 1.

Vanderbilt had not previously made any issue of its partner’s debt collection tactics and seems to have been surprised that CHS was suing anybody. VUMC only learned about the 750 lawsuits filed this year when asked for comment by WPLN News. In response, Vanderbilt says it’s asking CHS to review its policies.

“VUMC cannot impact CHS’ approach to medical debt collection for services prior to our involvement,” says VUMC spokesman John Howser. “We will encourage Tennova Clarksville to review its patient financial policies to address this issue.”

‘We believe they should attempt to pay something’

The Franklin-based hospital chain with hospitals in 16 states has not backed down from suing patients, even as many hospitals have been shamed out of it and even more stopped taking patients to court during the pandemic. But not CHS.

“When patients do have the ability to pay for the healthcare services they’ve received, then we believe they should attempt to pay something for those services,” CHS spokesperson Rebecca Pitt says in a statement. The company has declined to make anyone available for interviews.

Pitt says that the company does have a new policy as of this year and won’t take patients to court if they make less than twice the federal poverty limit. But there’s little evidence that this policy is being implemented.

Just at the Clarksville hospital, the facility is on track to take more patients to court than in any previous year.

With five kids and her factory income, Jennifer McCrobie says she makes well under the $70,000 that would qualify her to be shielded from a lawsuit. But in all those calls, the policy has never come up, she says.

Now, she’ll have to face a judge or risk the company getting a default judgment in her absence and garnishing her wages.

“I guess I’ll take a day off work, lose more money and go to court,” she says.

Local officials unaware

The mayor of Montgomery County, Jim Durrett, says he didn’t know the community’s only hospital was taking people to court so frequently.

Clarksville Mayor Joe Pitts says he understands the need for a hospital to bring in revenue and support its operations.

“But there also must be a balancing of resources to make sure care is available for uninsured and low-income residents, especially when we’re all facing the uncertainties related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” he says in a statement to WPLN News. “I’m encouraged by VUMC’s intention to re-evaluate the current CHS collection policies, and would support a policy of using lawsuits sparingly.”

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