Bill would define free hospital care standards

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland would set a minimum statewide standard for hospitals on providing free or reduced-price care to patients and prohibit hospitals from filing liens on patients' primary residences under a bill introduced in the General Assembly yesterday.

"It addresses some of the abuses that have taken place in the past that we hope will not reoccur in the future," said state Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Democrat who represents South Baltimore.

Della's bill would require hospitals to provide free care - also referred to as "charity care" - to patients whose incomes are at or below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines. That number is now about $33,300 for a family of four.

The legislation would also bar hospitals from placing liens on patients' homes; ensure that hospitals provide details to state regulators about their oversight of contracts with collection agencies and attorneys; and require hospitals to provide details about the availability of financial assistance.

Carmela Coyle, president of the Maryland Hospital Association, said in a statement that she hadn't read Della's bill but that the trade group is working with state regulators and legislators to "make sure that patients' problems are addressed and that Maryland's system for the uninsured and underinsured remains strong."

The bill is in response to a Baltimore Sun report that found that hospitals filed more than 132,000 lawsuits against their patients from 2003 to mid-2008, collected more than $100 million through judgments and imposed more than 8,000 property liens across the state, even though hospitals' costs of providing free and unpaid care are supposed to be covered in the rates they charge.

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