A Tennessee program is trying to keep medical debt cases from ever reaching the courtroom. The goal is to help patients work out a deal with medical providers before the costs start piling up.
One of the problems is that patients often don’t show up to face what they owe, says general sessions judge Alex McVeagh of Hamilton County.
“One of the main reasons we thought this was a good idea is because a vast majority of these suits never get to trial,” he says. “They are all resolved with what we call a default judgment.”
With a default judgment, a hospital can start garnishing the wages of a patient without them ever knowing beforehand. Hamilton County’s new online dispute resolution program is meant to help patients work out a deal without having to come to court or even talking during business hours.
The platform, which is free to use, allows patients to leave text messages for the hospital any time of day, whether about their financial situation or what they could pay. They could even contest the charges. If needed, the state provides a mediator at no cost to either party.
The Tennessee Med Debt Pilot Program is funded by the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission. It’s starting in Chattanooga and only with Erlanger Health System, which has agreed to work with patients through the portal. But the hope is to eventually expand statewide.
“If you’re receiving letters and phone calls about a medical debt, it’s important that you develop a response before you potentially face negative entries on your credit report and a lawsuit,” says attorney Shahen Salili of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, which is also providing support.