Kiss your faith in humanity goodbye, because not even emergency rooms are safe from debt collectors anymore. Last Tuesday, the Minnesota Attorney General’s office found that one of the largest medical debt collection agencies in the country, Chicago-based Accretive Health, has been disguising its employees as medical staff members. Why? Because that’s the easiest way to ambush patients in the hospital and get their money. You gotta think like a debt collector, see?
According to the New York Times, this reprehensible practice highlights just how desperately the medical industry wants to collect on debts. After reviewing court records and interviewing several employees, the Times found that Accretive had been disguising its collectors as medical personnel and implanting them into emergency rooms. The collectors then confronted indebted patients as they attempted to register and demanded that the victims pay up or get out.
Since the Accretive moles were given permission to carry out the ruse by the hospitals, the practice isn’t technically illegal – but the way they obtained some vital information may turn out to be. According to Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, Accretive employees may have violated federal law by using their cover to obtain confidential patient medical records. They may also have broken the law by not identifying themselves as agency thugs before they started harassing patients. On top of that, Swanson also filed a civil suit against Accretive in January over a stolen company laptop that just happened to contain information on 23,500 patients.
What’s most disturbing about this whole ordeal is that until the story broke, the trend was spreading. Though the allegations from Swanson primarily concern activity at the seven hospitals in Minnesota’s Fairview Health Services system, disguised collectors are operating in at least 60 hospitals around the country, including in nearby Michigan and Utah.
As hospitals hemorrhage – or at least claim to hemorrhage – more and more money every year, they’ve begun to cultivate the same type of boiler-room culture that we see in the credit collection industry. According to former employees of Accretive, all collectors were expected to meet a monthly quota. If they succeeded, they were showered with gift cards. If they failed, they were fired. Sometimes they were even given scripts to read, written by Accretive, that pressured patients into paying for treatment up front. “It’s like Glengarry Glen Ross meets the emergency room,” said Swanson in the AG’s official press release.
We understand the necessity for hospitals to recoup some of the $39 billion in uncompensated care they dole out every year. Still, you’ll have to forgive us for smirking when we found out that Accretive’s shares plummeted 30% – from $12.95 to $5.54 – within hours of the story’s appearance. There’s something wrong with this country when it’s okay for collection agencies to ambush patients who are struggling with breast cancer, HIV or Parkinson’s Disease at a hospital before they’re admitted.
It goes against the very principles of public medicine. If funerals and emergency rooms aren’t safe from the debt collector’s clutches, then what is? At what point do we draw the line between fair play and indefensible cruelty? If we don’t start coming up with answers soon, things are only going to get worse.