Medical debt lawsuit against Providence now includes collection agencies

Agencies violated the Collection Agency Act and Consumer Protection Act, according to attorney general.

Earlier this month, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that he has expanded his underlying consumer protection lawsuit against 14 Providence-affiliated hospitals from earlier in the year to include two collection agencies.

Ferguson has accused Harris & Harris and Optimum Outcomes, who worked for the five Swedish hospitals and nine Providence-affiliated medical facilities that were named in the original lawsuit, of failing to notify an estimated 54,000 patient accounts of available charity care.

“Despite its mission, for years, Providence has engaged in unfair and deceptive practices that prevent many of the most vulnerable members of the communities it claims to serve from accessing free and reduced cost charity care,” said the amended lawsuit presented by Ferguson.

According to the attorney general, the two collection agencies are accused of violating the Collection Agency Act and Consumer Protection Act. By law, collection agencies must include a written notice of any eligibility that a patient may have for charity care upon the first collection notice. The amended lawsuit also claims that the collection agencies failed to inform patients of their rights to request certain information about their debt, which is against the law. Ferguson accuses the 14 hospitals and the two collection agencies of collecting more than $470 million in medical debt while violating the law.

In an Aug. 9 press release, Ferguson said that he will fight to ensure that Washington state’s charity cares law. “Families live in fear that an unexpected medical emergency could result in crushing medical debt,” Ferguson said. “Collection agencies cannot deceive Washingtonians about their legal right to access medical financial assistance.”

In a statement from a Providence spokesperson, the organization said the charges are inaccurate and unfair.

“Charity care and financial assistance are a central tenet of our mission as a not-for-profit organization. As the largest provider of charity care in the state of Washington, the Providence family of organizations provided $75.5 million in free and discounted care statewide in 2021 alone,” said the spokesperson in an email. “We also absorbed $471 million in uncompensated Medicaid costs last year in Washington state. Our practices comply with, and in many instances exceed, the requirements of Washington’s Charity Care Act. In fact, our threshold for charity care eligibility is at least two times more generous than Washington state standards.”