Harris Health, the county’s public hospital and clinic system, will no longer require the poorest patients to pay co-payments if they can’t afford them. The new policy is part of a settlement brought on by a lawsuit by Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston.
Lone Star Legal Aid sued the hospital district two years ago over the issue. The attorneys gathered stories of patients at or below the federal poverty line who were being asked for small copayments, like 3 dollars for a clinic visit.
Lone Star Legal Aid attorney Kimberly Brown says that might not sound like much to some, but the fees can add up.
“The copayments were about 8 dollars per prescription,” Brown said, “And many of our clients easily have five or six prescriptions, so that’s over $40 whenever they just need to get their medications refilled, and that became a huge issue.”
The lawsuit pointed out that under Texas state law, poor patients have a right to treatment and can’t be forced to pay for it if they can’t afford it.
Harris Health settled the suit and agreed to a number of changes. Copayments will be voluntary for patients below the poverty level, and they can’t be billed for the money afterwards.
Harris Health also agreed to train staff members on the new policy and update language on brochures and the website.
“They’ll still be able to ask for those co-pays,” Brown said. “So they can still ask would someone like to contribute the $3 towards their doctor’s visit and if a patient chooses to do so, they have every right to do so and that’s not illegal. What we were fighting is the fact that they were mandating that people do so even when they couldn’t afford to do it, and saying they wouldn’t receive the services if they did not contribute.”
Harris Health responded with a written statement.
It noted that Harris Health does not admit to any allegations in the lawsuit, but has already begun implementing the new procedures, including ceasing billing for unpaid copayments for patients who fall into the lowest income category.