This story has been updated to add commentary from MountainView Regional Medical Center.
LAS CRUCES — When Alex Rougeux showed up at MountainView Regional Medical Center for surgery in September, she was surprised, but not shocked, to learn she owed money from a previous visit.
Rougeux, 23, a full-time student at New Mexico State University who earns a meager income from her job at a dog grooming business, has suffered from overlapping chronic illnesses for most of her life. life. In May, she went to MountainView’s emergency room with abdominal pain. Since that visit, her insurance had changed: she had been enrolled in a previous employer’s insurance plan but is currently covered by Medicaid.
Rougeux agreed to pay $100 of his outstanding balance that September morning and asked to set up a payment plan for the rest.
“They said they would send me something in the mail or someone would call me so we could work out a payment plan and settle this debt,” she recalled.
The next communication she received from the hospital, she said, was notice that she was being taken to court for her unpaid bills.
“It really stressed me out about my finances,” she said. Because Rougeux doesn’t qualify for federal student loans, she pays tuition in addition to living expenses and the cost of prescription drugs.
“I’m always worried when something is going to happen, when I have to pay for something out of pocket,” she said. “If I don’t have the medication I need to help me function, I can’t concentrate on school. I can’t even work. Sometimes I can’t even get out of bed. .”
As an indigent patient, Rougeux is eligible for protection under a 2021 New Mexico law protecting people whose income is less than twice the federal poverty level from debt collection actions, including the lawsuits.
Still, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty says MountainView has sued more than 200 low-income patients since the law took effect, without verifying whether they were protected by law, such as the demanded the law.
The organization is pursuing a class action lawsuit against the hospital and Faber and Brand, the Missouri-based law firm that is pursuing the hospital’s debt collection. Rougeux is among more than 200 anonymous plaintiffs in the class action.
“I understand that people go to the hospital and they get treatment, and that has to be paid for,” she said, “but these people are human. … I didn’t ask born with all these conditions. I don’t deserve to be treated less well because I earn less money.
Plaintiffs claim hospital ignores law
In an unusual move, attorneys for Las Cruces patient Ruby Ramirez filed the class action lawsuit as a counterclaim in a lawsuit the hospital filed against her in July, part of the first class action lawsuit seeking to positive enforcement of the New Mexico Patient Debt Collection Protection Act.
MountainView Regional Medical Center provided the following statement late Wednesday afternoon:
“MountainView Regional Medical Center is aware of state law requirements regarding the collection of medical debts and the policies and procedures previously implemented to ensure compliance with the law. We are not aware of any deviation from these policies and procedures. We will review the allegations in the lawsuit and work with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty if the review identifies errors or deviations from hospital policies and procedures.
The hospital’s owning company, Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, did not immediately respond to questions about the story; neither did Faber and Brand’s lawyers.
What is the law?Low-income New Mexicans may not know the law protecting them from collecting medical bills
Ramirez explained in a statement that MountainView sued her for more than $6,000 after she was rushed to hospital last year while pregnant. She says the hospital did not verify her income before taking her to court and that she is entitled to protection under the law.
“My family is on a very tight budget,” she said. “We can’t afford this lawsuit.”
Nicolas Cordova, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Poverty and Law, said that since December, MountainView has pursued 260 new cases against patients, obtaining 40 default judgments and garnishing the wages of 31 people.
“The hospital didn’t do their homework before filing these petitions,” Cordova said. “They did not attempt to contact a patient to verify whether or not they were low income.”
The countersuit also alleges that the actions of the hospital and Faber and Brand are deceptive marketing practices that violate New Mexico’s unfair practices law.
“When you go to the hospital you shouldn’t have to worry about having to go to court right after, but we know that hospitals, including and especially MountainView, sue hundreds of patients every year” , Cordova continued.
The class action asks Third District Judge Casey Fitch to declare the actions a violation of New Mexico laws and halt collection activity until he confirms the patients’ income status. It calls for the dismissal of all lawsuits and garnishment proceedings against patients who meet the legal requirements, the reinstatement of wages for anyone whose wages were improperly garnished, and the removal of negative credit reports on patients. patients who should not have been prosecuted. She is also seeking damages for the plaintiffs, legal fees and court costs.
Community Health Systems operates a chain of hospitals across the United States, including some in New Mexico.
One of its properties, the Carlsbad Medical Center, was the subject of a New York Times investigation in 2019 which found the hospital had filed nearly 3,000 medical debt lawsuits over four years. Lea Regional Medical Center in Hobbs and MountainView had each filed about 2,000 in the same time frame.