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Bill of the Month Podcast

‘An Arm And A Leg’: Reporter Says ‘Shame’ Spurred Hospital To Cancel Debt For Thousands

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Multiple journalists have spotlighted huge medical bills that have left patients swimming in medical debt. After those stories were made public, in many cases health providers waived the bill or canceled the debt.

Sadly, there are a lot of crazy-high medical bill stories out there — and not nearly enough journalists to go around. But in Memphis, Tenn., one journalist’s reporting produced a scaled-up response.

Reporter Wendi Thomas found that the biggest hospital in Memphis routinely sued its patients over unpaid bills, despite making tidy profits.

Among the defendants were some of the hospital’s own low-wage employees. Thomas met some of those workers while chasing the story at the courthouse.

“You saw them, there, in their scrubs,” she said. “I could see their [hospital] badge clipped to the front of their uniforms.”

Thomas wrote about what she saw as a stark injustice.

“The defendants are just outmatched,” Thomas said. “They don’t have the resources of a billion-dollar hospital with its own collection agency and attorneys.”

A couple of months later, the hospital dropped more than 6,500 lawsuits, and erased the debts.

“Shame is a powerful motivator,” Thomas said. “It just is. And the hospital didn’t look good, so they had to address it.”

Season 3 is a co-production of Kaiser Health News and Public Road Productions.

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