A little-known perk of being a Texas hospital is that if a broke accident victim visits you for emergency treatment, you get to lay claim to any money the victim wins through the courts later. It's officially called a "hospital lien," legal through a state statute that's been on the books since the 1930s. The point is to give hospitals first dibs on the money their patients get from personal injury lawsuits. If a person whose life you saved for free just got a fat settlement check, shouldn't that check go straight to you?
But since October of last year, five people have filed suits against Parkland Hospital in Dallas County, accusing it of abusing its lien privilege.
All of five of the patients are car crash victims, and all but one say in their suits that they were uninsured when they went to Parkland for medical treatment. The complaints make the same argument that Parkland is overcharging its patients when there's a lien involved, asking for money that exceeds "a reasonable and regular rate," as a woman named Elise Stamey says in a suit she filed last December.
Stamey received emergency treatment at Parkland after a car crash two years ago and had won a $50,000 judgment from one of the people who caused the crash. In its lien, Parkland demanded $22,000 of that. After Stamey sued, Parkland lowered the lien to $13,000 on the condition she drop the suit, a settlement agreement shows.
In another suit filed in October of last year, a woman named Krisana Jones said she actually had health insurance that had covered her emergency treatment at Parkland. Yet Parkland filed a lien afterward for her settlement money anyway. "Parkland's hospital lien inappropriately represents charges related to services for which Parkland has accepted insurance benefits," her suit says. In March, Jones also agreed to drop the suit after coming to a settlement with Parkland, the court records show.
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Parkland is far from the first or only only hospital in Texas accused of abusing this special lien privilege. In 2011 the Austin-American Statesman reported on a woman who received a lien for $31,115 from the University Medical Center Brackenridge. Personal injury attorneys, who don't like how liens can cut into their paychecks, complained to the paper at the time that hospitals often make medical bills fatter than they normally are if there's a lien involved.
Between liens, surprise bills from out-of-network physicians and absurd medical bills coming from hospitals across America, it might be wise to consider refusing that ambulance ride and buying some really good duct tape.
Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.