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Man sues hospitals, says uninsured charged more

Some say insurance companies negotiate discounts that uninsured patients don't get.

Published June 21, 2005

A Tampa man had the bad luck to wreck his motorcycle twice last year and was hurt badly enough to be taken to a hospital both times.

But Jamie O. Sosa says his luck got worse when he got stuck with hospital bills totaling nearly $80,000.

Sosa filed suit Monday, saying the two hospitals that treated him, Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg and St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, unfairly charged him far more than other patients because he had no health insurance.

Sosa's is the latest in a flurry of lawsuits filed across the country targeting hospitals that charge uninsured patients more than those with insurance. Because insurance companies negotiate discounts with hospitals, consumer advocates say, it's the uninsured - who usually lack insurance because they are too poor - who are hit with the biggest bills.

"With a debt like this, most of these uninsured patients are being forced into bankruptcy," said Sosa's attorney, Dan Clark of Tampa. "He has collection (agency) efforts being brought against him."

Officials at Bayfront and St. Joseph's would not comment specifically Monday on the lawsuit, which also names Bayfront Health System and BayCare Health System, the network to which St. Joseph's belongs. Both hospitals say they have policies to help low-income patients.

Clark is representing Sosa, a 22-year-old delivery driver, with two other Tampa Bay consumer lawyers. They hope to get class action status for the lawsuit so that other uninsured patients could join. The lawsuit says the hospital charges violate state laws against deceptive and unfair trade.

A similar lawsuit was filed in Miami last year against Health Management Associates Inc., a hospital chain based in Naples.

Patients such as Sosa wind up facing bills that are typically 300 to 400 percent higher than those of patients with insurance, Clark said.

St. Joseph's billed Sosa $13,881.73 for an overnight stay, while Bayfront billed him $64,701.27 after he spent 12 days there, according to the lawsuit.

"These are not-for-profit institutions placing people into a situation where if they don't pay, they have to take steps (such as bankruptcy). It's unreasonable, and it's unfair," Clark said.

But Bayfront has a discount program for uninsured patients, said spokeswoman Kanika Tomalin. The hospital looks for government assistance programs patients are eligible for and charges them on a sliding scale based on the patient's ability to pay, she said.

Tomalin said that because the discounts are done on a case-by-case basis, it's hard to say whether an uninsured patient is charged more than an insured one once the discount is applied.

"Collection agencies are used as a last resort," she said, only when patients have not made any effort to pay.

Last year, the hospital provided $15-million worth of care it didn't get paid for, she said.

St. Joseph's has a medical assistance program to help low-income patients, and patients are told about it when they get their bills, said spokeswoman Lisa Patterson.

[Last modified June 21, 2005, 02:30:30]

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