St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, the flagship hospital of CHI Franciscan Health, is coming under fire for allegedly shirking its legal duty to provide charity care to the uninsured poor. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced a consumer protection lawsuit Tuesday.
The lawsuit filed in Pierce County Superior Court details alleged violations of state law between 2012 and 2015. Ferguson estimated there are "tens of thousands" of patients who could be owed restitution.
"St. Joseph placed obstacles in the way of thousands of individuals in need of affordable healthcare,” Ferguson said. “These are individuals who moreover had to make hard choices -- pay money they should not have had to pay for health care rather than paying the rent or feeding their children."
Ferguson said the state is seeking restitution to patients who were denied charity care as well as civil penalties.
Among the allegations against St. Joseph's is that employees were told to not volunteer information about the charity care program. Washington state law requires all hospitals to let patients know about the availability of charity care and to screen them for eligibility. It also limits the number of documents required of patients to prove their income.
Speaking at a Tacoma press conference, Ferguson said he hoped the lawsuit would send a message to the broader hospital sector—nonprofit and for-profits alike—about their legal obligations to provide charity care.
"I hope the industry takes a good hard look at their practices," he said. "We absolutely expect hospitals and medical centers to follow the law."
Washington state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat from Tacoma, stood beside Ferguson when he announced the charity care lawsuit. She said she had heard from dozens and dozens of people with complaints about St. Joseph's, including patients "talking about how the hospital aggressively tried to seek payment from them when they have no money."
A statement from CHI Franciscan said it was "disappointed" by today's lawsuit and said it continues to provide care to "absolutely everyone" who needs it "as always."
"We carefully consider all charity care applications we receive and approve all who qualify," CHI Franciscan Health Vice President for Communications and Government Affairs Cary Evans said. "We completely cover the cost of care for people whose income is lower than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. That is triple the income level required by state law. This commitment has resulted in CHI Franciscan Health providing $20 million in charity care in the last year alone."