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Because of surge in COVID-19 cases, Northwell hits pause on bill collections

The Northwell Health system sued more than 2,500

The Northwell Health system sued more than 2,500 people in 2020, more than any other system in the state, according to The New York Times. Northwell said Tuesday it now will stop legal filings over unpaid medical bills. Credit: Howard Simmons

Northwell Health said Tuesday that it would stop all legal filings over unpaid medical bills and rescind many lawsuits.

The New Hyde Park-based health care system, the largest in the state, instituted the moratorium hours after The New York Times published a story on how Northwell sued more than 2,500 people in 2020, more than any other system in the state.

Northwell had a six-month pause on all legal filings from April to September, Northwell spokeswoman Barbara Osborn said in a statement.

"The lawsuits referenced in The New York Times story were for unpaid medical bills incurred prior to the pandemic," she said.

All legal filings from April until the end of 2020 will be rescinded, and Northwell will not reinstitute legal action in those cases later, Rich Miller, the system’s chief business strategy officer, said in a phone interview Tuesday night.

Scott Buckley, 48, of Sands Beach, said he was sued by Northwell in February. There was a judgment in September saying he owed Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson $21,028, plus about $4,000 in interest and fees, according to documents from the State Supreme Court in Suffolk County.

Reached by Newsday on Tuesday, before Northwell announced the rescinding of legal cases, Buckley said, "If they drop it, that would be great." The default court judgment against him, he said, "is devastating. I have no money to pay back."

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Buckley said he has been unable to work for most of 2020 due to his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He said he had been in and out of Mather more than 20 times over the past three years for his lung disease, and each time he presented his government insurance card.

Miller said the first moratorium was lifted as the economy was improving and the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations had fallen. Now, he said, "With the resurgence [of COVID-19 cases], more people are struggling."

Miller said that despite the earlier six-month moratorium, hundreds of lawsuits were mistakenly filed during that period against Mather patients.

"We had a computer glitch that allowed some claims for that one hospital to continue to go out for the legal claims, which should not have happened," he said. "That was a mistake."

Miller said Northwell in 2019 "provided tens of thousands of zero-interest payment plans" to patients who needed help, and provided $260 million in financial assistance to, for example, families of four with incomes of up to $130,000 a year.

"If people don’t have means, all they have to do is contact us, and we work with people who have financial need," Miller said. "But if they don’t communicate, and our research indicates they have the ability to pay, we have to pursue it."

Osborn said Northwell only takes legal action with less than 0.1% of claims.

"It is only when a patient has been unresponsive to multiple attempts to resolve the outstanding balance and if it is determined that the patient has a strong ability to pay," she said.

Miller said that in all 2,500 cases cited by the Times, Northwell made multiple attempts to resolve the matters without legal action.

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