The lawsuit names five patients right now, but staff attorney Jeff Larsen says Lone Star Legal Aid has collected stories from many more clients about how they are charged and billed:
“We filed this lawsuit because the hospital district is charging fees to people who have little or no income. In many cases, no income at all. That’s inappropriate because it’s illegal, the Texas statute does not allow them to do that. We know that in some cases that means people don’t get the care they ought to get.”
For example, one of the plaintiffs visited the El Franco Lee clinic in southwest Houston.
On two separate occasions, a receptionist told him he couldn’t see the doctor unless he paid the co-pay, which he could not afford.
Both times he left without seeing the doctor.
The lawsuit also says that signs at clinics or pharmacies use language that makes patients think they will be refused treatment if they can’t pay.
Martha Orozco, another Legal Aid attorney, says that’s misleading and against Texas law.
“The fee that’s asked for is really a contribution. It shouldn’t be a mandatory fee, the statute doesn’t allow. Obviously that’s what’s happening now, it’s become a mandatory fee for these folks.”
Legal Aid says the hospital district is legally bound to create a system to evaluate if patients can pay.
And for patients who are truly poor, it must be made clear that they can get free care, and will not incur legal debts.
Again, Jeff Larsen:
“We’re not clear why some clients just get bills, some clients don’t get bills, and other clients get denied services completely because they can’t afford to pay the fee.”
A hospital district spokeswoman says officials are still reviewing the lawsuit and can’t comment right now.
From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.