NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Nashville General has long been the city's hospital for the poor and uninsured. The facility provides medical treatment whether or not the patient has the money to pay for it. But there are new allegations claiming the company that runs Nashville General's ER has been overcharging those who seek care there.
Nashville General treats some 50,000 patients a year. The class-action lawsuit alleges that patients at hospitals across the country including Nashville General are being seriously overcharged for medical care by Team Health.
"Team Health is executing a scheme to squeeze as much money out of patients as it possibly can," attorney Ben Harrington told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Harrington is one of the attorneys working the case.
And, Team Health is the Knoxville-based company hired by hospitals including Nashville General to run their emergency rooms and provide the doctors to staff them. Team Health then bills the patients for the hospital visit.
But according to the lawsuit, these bills are often substantially more than the going rate and Team Health "fraudulently inflates its rates far above what it is legally entitled to collect."
"And (Team Health) is asking patients to pay that full amount. And when patients don’t pay, Team Health's practice is to file lawsuits to seek recovery of that amount. I think in the last three years alone, Team Health has sued almost 5000 patients to recover artificially inflated bills," Harrington said.
And many of these patients, the lawsuit maintains, qualified for free care or reduced rates through "charity care" programs.
Here in Nashville, we searched court records and found just last year, Team Health, through its subsidiary Southeastern Emergency Physicians, sued more than 700 patients who had been cared for at Nashville General. Those we were able to reach told us they had no insurance when they were treated including a woman we found who was billed more than $3,600 for four hospital visits.
Court records show she makes about $600 a month while her living expenses are more than double that. Yet she was ordered to pay $40 dollars a month to Team Health. And at that rate, she'll be making payments for the next seven years to pay off that debt.
"That is a typical, typical case," Harrington said of the woman's situation.
Attorneys accuse Team Health of putting profits over public health.
They say the company which is owned by a private equity firm is more focused on paying shareholders than providing medical care. And patients, they say, including those at Nashville General, suffer as a result.
"So when you are talking about poor and the indigent community that are seeking medical care in an emergency, right, and they’re being over-billed for that when they really don’t have any choice about the options in front of them, I think that severe misconduct," Harrington said.
In a statement, Team Health said:
"Team Health is confident that our billing practices and organizational structure are fully compliant with long-established laws and precedents. Team Health maintains a long-standing practice against balance billing. We believe these claims are wholly without merit and we look forward to vigorously defending ourselves."
Team Health has run the ER at Nashville General since 2016.
The hospital gets almost $50 million a year from the city to care for Nashville residents who do not have insurance and cannot afford medical treatment. The hospital refused to comment on the lawsuit.
We have also reached out to Metro Council members who represent north Nashville and sit on the council's Minority Caucus. So far, those we have contacted, including Councilmember at Large Sharon Hurt and Councilpersons Tanaka Vercher, Brandon Taylor, and Kyzonte Toombs have all chosen not to comment on the lawsuit or discuss whether they are concerned that their constituents might have been overcharged for visits to the hospital.
Team Health meanwhile says they've stopped suing patients from Nashville General for overdue bills. That happened after Congress began investigating surprise billing practices by physician staffing companies including Team Health late last year. But even though the company has not filed any new cases this year, it appears to be still trying to collect from many patients it had already sued.