Two recent federal district court rulings produced the first negative news for hospital defendants in the uninsured billing lawsuits stemming from lawyer Richard Scruggs, though a different lawsuit was dismissed on its federal claims.
In Louisiana, a federal judge denied a request by the American Hospital Association, a co-defendant, to dismiss a case, breaking a string of four successful motions to dismiss by defendants in federal court, and in Mississippi, a federal judge allowed discovery to proceed with a pointed question about how the defendant hospital charges its uninsured patients.
The Louisiana situation appears to be unus-ual in that the hospital named in the lawsuit, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, New Orleans, did not make a motion to dismiss on the primary counts in the case, the ones that were successfully dismissed in four other cases. The AHA's motion to dismiss centered on just two counts in the lawsuit and relied on arguments different from those used successfully in the four lawsuits that obtained dismissals in federal court.
Ochsner spokeswoman Katherine Voss declined to comment, referring questions to another spokeswoman, Amiee Goforth, who didn't return calls for comment.
In the Mississippi suit, defendants AHA and Mississippi Baptist Health Systems, Jackson, may still get the dismissal they seek, but in the meantime they've got to cooperate in the legal discovery process, a federal judge ruled. Mississippi Baptist and its medical center were told to respond to a plaintiff discovery request that they admit they charge and try to collect more from uninsured patients than from insured patients, and to explain their response to that request, according to the ruling.
"I have a good feeling about it," Scruggs-affiliated lawyer David Merideth said in reference to the Mississippi Baptist decision. The hospital defendants can't survive extensive discovery, Merideth said.
But Melinda Hatton, chief Washington counsel for the AHA, said discovery is a routine part of litigation. Mississippi Baptist spokesman Robby Channell declined to comment.
Those two rulings, though, followed another dismissal of federal claims in a Scruggs lawsuit, this one against William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich. The lawsuit's state claims were left open pending a briefing from the defendants. "We're pleased," said Michael Killian, spokesman for William Beaumont. "We think it's part of the pattern of (what) the other courts have found across the country."
Defendants had earlier won dismissals of federal claims in Scruggs suits against Sutter Health, Sacramento, Calif., and Baptist Health System, Birmingham, Ala. A similar but unaffiliated lawsuit filed against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center also was dismissed (Dec. 6. p. 20).
Three more hearings on requests to dismiss were scheduled for last week, according to the AHA. Dan Green, a spokesman for Phoenix-based Banner Health, said Banner's Dec. 6 hearing went very well from their perspective as a defendant. The AHA is also named as a defendant in the Banner lawsuit.
Also expected to argue for dismissal late last week were defendants in two other lawsuits including the AHA: one against both Sacred Heart Health System, Pensacola, Fla., and its affiliate Ascension Health, St. Louis, and another against Baptist Health South Florida, Coral Gables, according to an AHA update to its members.
The time frame for the judges' decisions in those hearings wasn't known at deadline.