For the second time in less than one week, Washington Attorney general Bob Ferguson has filed a civil lawsuit against a component of CHI Franciscan, Tacoma’s second-largest not-for-profit healthcare system. Last Thursday, it was a federal court action related to CHI's extension of services in Kitsap County that prompted a response from the defendants.

This morning, an action filed against St. Joseph Medical Center alleges it repeatedly violated the state Consumer Protection Act by withholding charity care from tens of thousands of low-income patients going back to at least 2012.

The lawsuit also claims that senior management at the hospital was aware of the problems and did nothing to resolve them. In the meantime, St. Joseph made public pronouncements about how care for the poor and vulnerable was primary to its mission.

To the contrary, Ferguson said at a press conference in Tacoma, St. Joseph put obstacles in the way of patients who were seeking access to affordable care.

Employees of the hospital’s contract revenue management firm, Conifer Health Solutions, were allegedly trained to use language designed to give patients the impression that they were required to pay for their treatment upfront, with deposits of $250 or more. They would then incur large medical bills.

Complaints from patients and from St. Joseph Hospital’s own employees were reported to management, according to the AG’s information. And the hospital’s CFO was even quoted, “I’m afraid this is going to backfire on us, if we are not very careful very soon.”

A statement received Wednesday from Cary Evans, VP for Communications & Government Affairs, CHI Franciscan Health, expressed disappointment in the lawsuit filing and added:

“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.”

The lawsuit filed in Pierce County Superior Court seeks to ensure that the medical center provides proper notice of charity care rights to patients before payment is requested. It also asks an end to aggressive collection practices and restitution for low-income patients who were harmed.

Civil penalties of up to $2,000 per individual violation are also specified by state law.

You can read the entire St. Joseph Hospital news release from the State Attorney General at this link.