Washington AG Ferguson files lawsuit against St. Joseph

Attorney General Ferguson has filed a lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court against St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, which has been withholding charity care since 2012. Hospitals in Washington State are legally required to provide information about charity care to patients at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

St. Joseph “aggressively trained their staff to seek payment” before providing information about charity care. One former employee said they were trained to avoid phrases that gave patients the options to not pay and to never volunteer information about charity care. This language is repeated in training manuals for staff.

Additionally, St. Joseph placed additional obstacles which are “illegal and harm vulnerable Washingtonians” according to AG Ferguson.

Hospitals only need one document to verify patients’ eligibility for charity care. St. Joseph repeatedly asked for multiple documents, causing 50 percent of applicants to be denied. Patients were told they needed to place a deposit before they would receive the charity care application. Some patients were sent to collections while their applications were being reviewed.

The lawsuit alleges that St. Joseph failed to provide notice of the availability of charity care both verbally and in writing, and screen patients for charity care eligibility before attempting to collect payment, both of which are required by law.

One patient said he reconsidered heart surgery because of the demand for a large payment that he couldn’t afford.

AG Ferguson alleges that senior management at St. Joseph knew about these violations and staff and patient complaints, but did nothing to address the issue.

The Attorney General’s office started its investigation in 2016. They found that from 2012-2015, St. Joseph consistently provided charity care a lower rate than the regional average, up to 40 percent lower. If St. Joseph had provided charity care at the regional average, they would have give $70 million more in charity care.

The Attorney General seeks restitution for lower income patients and civil penalties. Each civil penalty can have up to a $2,000 fine.

This is the first affirmative lawsuit based on a hospitals’ charity care program. Attorney General Ferguson said he will not settle the suit out of court unless he sees systematic change that addresses the root issues.