A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Northwest Hospital & Medical Center in Seattle, alleging the hospital failed to screen low-income patients eligible for free or discounted care.
The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court of King County, argues Northwest didn't screen two emergency room patients for free or discounted care under the Washington Charity Care Act, which requires hospitals assess if a low-income patient is eligible.
A Northwest spokeswoman said in a prepared statement that it is aware of the lawsuit and is currently investigating the facts. “Northwest Hospital has always been committed to providing treatment to patients regardless of their ability to pay. We have financial counselors who work closely with our patients to help investigate all payment sources that might be available including Medicaid and charity care.”
The plaintiffs, two men who earn low-income wages, claim the hospital didn't inform them about charity care options. Both of their unpaid medical bills were sent to collection agencies. The plaintiff Kamal Amireh, an uninsured 55-year-old cab driver, owes $4,016. The other plaintiff Cabrera Villalobos, an underinsured cook, owes $1,579.
The Washington Charity Care Act grants patients free or discounted hospital care if their income is at or below the federal poverty line.
According to a community assessment of Northwest's service area, 21% of patients, or 134,000, have income below the federal poverty line. In 2015, Northwest provided more than $7.3 million in charity care, according to a spokeswoman.
The suit also alleges that a person has the right under Washington Charity Care Act to receive charity care after the hospital files the unpaid bills with a collection agency. Amireh alleges that he asked Northwest if he was eligible to receive charity care after he received a collection and was told it was too late.
Matt Geyman, a lawyer at Columbia Legal Services representing the plaintiffs, said other states have similar healthcare cost protections for low-income patients. He added this is likely the first lawsuit of this nature to be filed in Washington.
Northwest, a subsidiary of the University of Washington Medicine, has 280 beds and employs 1,900.