Groups call for probe of St. Francis hospital over charity care

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Two community organizations called Wednesday for the Indiana Attorney General’s office to investigate Franciscan St. Francis Health’s Beech Grove hospital to determine if it is following laws on extending financial assistance to low-income patients.

Citizens Action Coalition Education Fund and Indiana Legal Services Inc. claim that “a good number” of Indianapolis south-side residents who should have qualified for reduced or waived bills at St. Francis were instead steered into payments plans.

The groups claim to have documented 93 complaints against St. Francis However, they included only one example in a 62-page report on the financial assistance policies of Indianapolis' four major hospital systems, including St. Francis.

The two groups said all four hospital systems are not doing enough to publicize and make patients aware of charity-care policies that can reduce or even eliminate their hospital bills. Also, speedier application processes would help, the groups said.

In a July 2010 report, Citizens Action and Indiana Legal Services reported that out of 800 patients with hospital debt they interviewed in a non-scientific process, nearly half had never been told about the hospital’s financial assistance policies.

“While our meetings with hospital administrators indicate that most have good intentions when it comes to charity care, there is an obvious disconnect between their hospital’s written policies and its actual practices,” said Lindsay Helmbock, director of the Indianapolis Hospital Accountability Project being operated by Citizens Action and Indiana Legal Services, in a written statement.

The groups singled out St. Francis’ Beech Grove facility, which is one of three Indianapolis-area hospitals that are part of the Franciscan Alliance, based in Mishawaka.

The groups’ latest report includes a story about Charles Melton, who received two surgeries at St. Francis Beech Grove in April 2010. When the bills arrived, he applied for financial assistance, but says the only return communication he received was a bill stamped as a final notice demanding payment.

So Melton set up a payment plan, sending $226 monthly to St. Francis. Health issues forced Melton to retire in January 2011, and he again asked St. Francis for financial assistance. St. Francis asked him to file another application, and further requests for paperwork have dragged out the process until today.

“Much of our consumer outreach has focused on the south side of Indianapolis, St. Francis’ main service area, so we have heard numerous horror stories about their harsh collection practices and failure to provide information about financial assistance to those in need,” the report states, without identifying any other specific stories.

Franciscan St. Francis issued a written response to the report, saying: "While we are confident in our financial assistance programs and our efforts to communicate these programs to patients, we hope to meet with representatives of the Coalition to work through the report and determine areas for suggested improvements. Like other hospitals, Franciscan St. Francis Health has a process to determine if a payment plan or charity care will be required. Every year we work with thousands of patients on a case-by-case basis who have difficulty paying their bills."

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