Even a longtime physician who helped save Cookeville’s hospital had no idea how frequently patients are sued for unpaid bills.
After a WPLN News investigation showed that Cookeville Regional Medical Center sued nearly a thousand people just last year, some patient advocates are calling for change.
Chuck Womack, a retired urologist, helped rescue the city-owned hospital when it was on track to be sold in the late 1990s. He’s now on the city council, which technically oversees the hospital.
As a doctor, he says he had a rule to never take patients to court if they couldn’t pay a bill.
“You can’t get blood out of a turnip,” he says. “I figured the people that would pay me would pay me and the people that wouldn’t, they wouldn’t.”
Despite spending most of his career working in Cookeville Regional Medical Center, he never realized the hospital was doing that exact thing. Over the last two decades, WPLN News found the hospital sued roughly 11,000 patients.
“I think we ought to be humane. We ought to have policies that if you don’t have the income, you shouldn’t be harassing people that are really indigent, that are really poor, because everybody gets sick,” Womack says.
But Womack says he doesn’t have any “direct control.” The Cookeville city council only names the hospital’s board.
Cookeville Regional’s CEO, Paul Korth, has said he does not plan to alter billing practices. But there are some small changes that would help, says Marla Williams, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society in Cookeville. In her experience, patients can no longer request financial assistance once they’ve been summoned to court.
“They might not have known to apply. So why not let them apply for that after a suit’s been filed?” she asks. “If I were representing them, if I were the hospital, I would assess maybe if the individuals could pay before I spend the time and resources to file suit.”
Cookeville Regional has signage about charity care, but it’s mostly directed at uninsured patients. Many facing lawsuits have insurance but can’t afford their high deductibles.
A hospital spokesperson says Cookeville Regional only sues when there has been no communication or attempt to pay by the patient.
“We urge anyone that has outstanding debt to contact us. We will work with them to find a solution so long as they participate in the process,” says Melahn Finley, director of marketing and public relations. “We don’t sue anyone unless there has been either an absolute refusal to respond to our communications or a lack of adequate payments being made on the account.”