Civil Justice for Uninsured, Overcharged Patients
You know all those lawsuits that conservatives like McCain blame for the high cost of healthcare? You know, the ones that actually have nothing to do with the high cost of healthcare? Well, the fact is that at least one lawsuit has actually reduced health care costs for a group of patients. A recent class action settlement resulted in refunds for low- and middle-income uninsured people who were overcharged for the care they paid for out-of-pocket.
Tuesday’s settlement between patients and St-Louis health care provider BJC is a case-in-point for why our court system is an important and powerful tool that yields real results for real ordinary citizens facing real injustices. Uninsured patients allege that BJC hospitals overcharged them for all or some of their medical treatment, up to three times as much as their insured counterparts; denied uninsured patients access to the charity care that it was required to provide as part of its non-profit status; and used predatory collection practices when patients had trouble making payments.
BJC Healthcare, the area's largest health care system, will provide a 25 percent discount to all hospital patients without insurance under a class-action settlement agreement announced Tuesday. Some uninsured patients treated in the past also may be eligible for refunds or discounts.
Speaking to press, patients in the BJC class action expressed satisfaction:
"All in all, it's a fair agreement," said Dave Kuneman, one of the plaintiffs. "Agreements are never perfect for everyone. It's the best that Barnes and our class can do in the real world."
But this is not just a case in which the civil court system improved a difficult and unfair financial situation for individuals directly involved in the litigation. This case also had some positive reverberating effects on uninsured patients at neighboring health care providers. From the article:
Several area health care systems originally faced similar lawsuits or were threatened with them. Those hospital systems then began discounting prices to uninsured patients more aggressively...
Since then, hospitals across the country and the St. Louis area have made significant changes to their charity care policies…
Chip Robertson, an attorney representing the class, said Tuesday's settlement is a "serious attempt" by BJC to address the problem of the uninsured.
The civil courts are not just important for ensuring that individuals can find justice when they’ve been treated unfairly. Many lawsuits also have secondary effects that benefit whole communities, cities, and even the entire general public. In this way, the civil justice system—the system of public courts where plaintiffs bring these types of disputes—is an empowering tool for ordinary citizens.
Through the civil justice system, ordinary people have helped spark improvements in areas like product safety and medical treatment protocol. Their lawsuits have created incentives for corporations and other powerful entities to avoid litigation by improving the practices that would lead to litigation. In other words, lawsuits force powerful entities like corporations and even government agencies to consider the impact their actions will have on real human beings, and I’m not just talking about the individual human beings who stand to gain financially from the matter.
And why shouldn't lawsuits do this?
Most corporations are driven by the profit motive, not the moral motive. Obviously that doesn't mean corporations willfully go about seeking opportunities to harm people, but it can sometimes mean that human interests conflict with the bottom line. For instance, a corporate polluter may fight litigation because punitive damages would cut into the corporation's profits. It could—and probably would—do this even if the devastation it caused truly warranted a stiff penalty. As the BJC lawsuit demonstrates, sometimes even non-profits are susceptible to this troubling tension.
Through the civil justice system, people can fight for their interest in living free of the harms that are caused when corporations fail to implement human values as they execute predominantly profit-motivated business practices. This is why, especially in light of efforts to limit our access to the courts, it is important to continue the dialogue on how to strengthen the civil justice system.
We should not only point to cases like the BJC settlement as an example of the benefits of civil justice, but we should also ask ourselves how we can improve the civil justice system. How can it be more effective at empowering ordinary citizens who want to defend their basic rights and interests in court?