Can Nonprofit Hospitals Be Sued for Harassment in Attempting to Collect Unpaid Bills?

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July 10, 2018

Nonprofit hospitals are driven by their desire to help patients. They have dedicated staffs who spend years treating the sick and healing the injured. However, they can also be ruthless with individuals who do not pay for their services as agreed to. Nonprofit hospitals have collections departments and partner agencies who pursue individuals who owe them money relentlessly. Those individuals need to know their rights and the steps debt collectors can and cannot take against them. If those collectors step over a particular line, they may be liable for significant damages.

The Nonprofit Hospital Business Model

Nonprofit hospitals have a business model just like any other company. They have to bring in revenue and use that revenue to pay their expenses. In a massive organization like a nonprofit hospital, only a small percentage of employees are working as volunteers. The rest are salaried employees that need a steady source of income. Some of that income comes from regular donations from the public and government funding from health care organizations.

But a large percentage comes from payments made by individuals for procedures, medical equipment, and hospital stays. Hospitals forgive a large amount of those payments every year and they set up payment plans for many individuals who cannot pay their medical bills. However, even the most charitable nonprofit hospital still uses collections agencies to find and procure payments from individuals with unpaid bills.

Collections Rules

There are certain rules that nonprofits have to take care to follow in the collections process. They have to begin any collections process with a written letter within five days of the first collections call. This written letter must notify the individual being targeted of who they owe the debt to and the amount of the owed debt. The written letter transfers the situation of the debtor away from an informal dispute about funds owed to a hospital and into the official world of debt collections regulations.

Then, the hospital or the group collecting for the hospital must adhere to a series of legal guidelines. They must be careful what information they solicit from other individuals about the debtor’s financial situation. They may only contact connections in order to achieve location information. The individuals who are trying to collect debts must restrict the ways that they contact a debtor. They can only call by phone at reasonable hours and at reasonable intervals. Thirty calls in an hour might legally constitute harassment.

Debt collectors must not interact with an individual through means such as postcards. When they do talk to a debtor on the phone, they must take care to speak the truth about why they are calling and what debts they are trying to gain from an individual. They must not lie and talk about legal or police powers that they do not have. Debt collectors cannot threaten to throw an individual in jail or scream curses at them if they do not consent to pay.

Debt collectors also cannot lie about the status of an individual’s debts or their position in the legal system. They cannot make poorly phrased or vague statements about using the legal system against an individual either. There are certain ways in which debt collectors can file legal judgments against individuals. However, the threat of those judgments cannot be a tool used to harass those individuals.

What to Do

If an individual is being harassed by a potential debt collector, they need to become vigilant. These individuals need to record every document that they receive from a debt collector. In some cases, they may request written information about the debt collector, the considered debt, and their case. The initial letter stating the debts that a person owes is critical. This letter makes the entire debt collections process legitimate.

Once an individual receives this letter in a timely manner, the debtor then must be careful to flag inappropriate behavior. They need to keep an eye out for the many potential situations where a debt collector may cross a line. If one of those violations occurs, an individual should immediately contact an attorney. The behavior may continue or grow in intensity if an attorney does not become involved.

In some cases, threatening or otherwise illegitimate activities from a debt collector may expand into a legal proceeding. Legal proceedings and summons must be responded to. Even if an individual thinks that a debt collector is being unscrupulous, he or she must still appear for any summons that is issued against them.

Attorneys will begin a debt collection harassment case in two ways. First, minor cases may only require a cease-and-desist letter to be sent. This letter stipulates the untoward behavior and requests that debt collectors stop that behavior. If the behavior stops, the case would end and the individual would still have to be responsible for the debt being paid. In instances where such a letter does not work or instances where damage has already been done, the attorney will begin to gather evidence and contact witnesses.

Some states allow attorneys and individuals to record phone conversations where they are one of the parties. Attorneys will know if those state laws apply and may set up a recording to provide evidence of a debt collector’s misdeeds. They would present any of this evidence as they sought a settlement from the debt collection agency. The debt collection agency may also be a hospital department that was handed the request to settle. A settlement may be the best option for both parties. Settlements negate the need for costly discovery and depositions. They make it easier for a person both to win damages for the stress caused by an unscrupulous debt collection agency and pay off their debts faster.

Conclusion

Individuals subject to debt collections by nonprofits should not panic. They need to take a series of reasonable, concrete steps in order to eventually escape their debt collectors. These steps will ensure that they will be protected in the collections process. If not, they need the help of an attorney who will end the harassment of debt collections once and for all.

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