In late July, a Yakima County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of a class of indigent patients against the parent company of Yakima Regional Medical Center (YRMC) and Toppenish Community Hospital. Judge Susan L. Hahn found that the hospitals violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act by failing to inform and screen indigent patients for free or reduced-cost care. In particular, Judge Hahn concluded that the hospitals engaged in “a pattern of intentional concealment designed to reduce charity care subsidized medical services. Clearly the actions of [the hospitals] were deceptive acts or practices.” The decision follows the court’s December 2015 ruling that the hospitals’ practice of demanding payments from patients before screening for charity care violated the Washington Charity Care Act and breached the hospitals’ contracts with its patients.

“The Court has found the hospitals liable on all claims brought on behalf of the low-income patients in this case,” said Eleanor Hamburger, of Sirianni Youtz Spoonemore Hamburger and one of the attorneys for the class. “This clears the way for the damages phase of the litigation. All that’s left is to determine how damages will be measured and proven, the amount of damages to be awarded, and the process by which any damage award will be distributed to class members.”

The lawsuit, pending since late 2013, revealed the hospitals’ standard practice of demanding payments from low-income patients without first informing and screening them for the state-mandated Charity Care program. When the for-profit Health Management Associates (HMA) bought the two hospitals from Sisters of Providence in 2003, the new owners promised to abide by the existing Providence Charity Care policy and to maintain levels of Charity Care that matched other hospitals in Central Washington. Instead, HMA changed its Charity Care policies to restrict access to Charity Care, and failed to file them with the state regulator. The amount of charity care the hospitals provided soon fell significantly.

“We look forward to resolving this next phase as quickly as possible. The low-income patients who were forced to pay inflated charges for services when they were eligible for free or lower-cost care should finally be compensated,” said Andrea Schmitt of Columbia Legal Services, the other firm representing the plaintiffs in the case. In the meantime, the hospitals have agreed to comply with Charity Care practices that meet state law requirements.

These two hospitals are not alone in Washington for their failure to affirmatively screen patients for Charity Care. In June, patient advocates filed a class action lawsuit against Northwest Hospital in Seattle for failing to meet its responsibility to screen patients for Charity Care. Columbia Legal Services and Schroeter, Goldmark & Bender filed the complaint on behalf of patients Kamal Amireh and Hugo Cabrera Villalobos, challenging the hospital’s unfair, deceptive, and unlawful practice of subjecting patients to collection efforts for their hospital bills without first screening them for Charity Care eligibility.