Two court decisions went against plaintiffs in class-action lawsuits over the billing of uninsured patients by Sutter Health, Sacramento, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup in San Francisco dismissed federal claims against Sutter. State claims, filed with the assistance of Scruggs Law Firm, Oxford, Miss., were dismissed from the federal case without prejudice, meaning they can be filed in state court. The Scruggs law firm is part of a consortium of plaintiffs' attorneys that have sued hospitals nationwide, alleging that the hospitals charge uninsured patients too much and are too aggressive in trying to collect payments.
In the class-action suit against UPMC, which apparently is not among the suits brought by the consortium but is based on the same principles, U.S. District Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell in Pittsburgh recommended that the case be dismissed before trial. The plaintiffs may appeal the decision to a district court judge. Jesse Witten, a partner in the Washington office of Jones Day, UPMC's counsel, said the magistrate's decision was the first to address a key legal issue in uninsured-billing suits -- whether a tax exemption creates a contract between the federal government and the hospital that requires the hospital to provide affordable medical care to uninsured patients. Mitchell ruled that a contract isn't created and even if it were, plaintiffs would lack standing to sue.
The odds in an appeal favor UPMC, as district judges more often than not accept the decisions of magistrate judges, said Stuart Gerson, an attorney with Epstein Becker & Green, Washington, who represents defendants in similar suits. Jeffrey Suher, a Monroeville, Pa., attorney who represents plaintiffs in the suit against UPMC, did not return phone calls at deadline. Suher and lead plaintiff Gary Amato have separately sued Allegheny General Hospital, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. and Rockingham Casualty Co., according to district court records. -- by Paul Barr