Enough to Make You Sick: Debt Collectors Hit Up Hospital Patients

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Having a medical crisis that lands you in the hospital is stressful enough, but there’s a disturbing new trend that’s so bad, it makes the indignity of wearing a hospital gown pale in comparison. Debt collectors are masquerading as hospital workers and demanding that sick people cough up payments for old medical bills before receiving treatment — even in emergency rooms. 

The Attorney General of Minnesota slammed debt collection company Accretive Health for tricking people seeking medical care into believing that they couldn’t be treated unless they paid up. “It goes to great length to conceal its activities, going so far as to ‘infuse’ employees into hospitals,” the AG charges in a complaint filed in January, which contends that Accretive violated both debt collection and medical privacy laws.

A New York Times article about the practice notes that even the most vulnerable patients were targets: collection agents were told “they should ‘get cracking on labor and delivery,’ since there is a ‘good chunk to be collected there,’ according to company e-mails.” Yeah, you read that right: Women were being badgered about outstanding medical bills while giving birth.

(MORE: How Medical Debt Sickens Your Credit Score)

There isn’t a central database that compiles instances of this awful practice, but it almost certainly extends beyond Minnesota. “I have every reason to believe that what they are doing in Minnesota is simply company practice,” AG Lori Swanson tells the Times. People across the country have reason to be wary: Accretive just announced a new partnership with a hospital network that spans 11 states.

This certainly isn’t the first instance of debt collectors being willing to do pretty much anything to make a buck. Debt collectors hound the grieving survivors of people who have died with outstanding debts and trick people with poor credit into reactivating old debts when they sign up for a credit card. Even debt collectors hired by the government to chase down delinquent student loan debtors aren’t staying within the law; the FTC slapped two companies earlier this year with $4.5 million in fines for their abuses.

(MORE: Should Medical Debt Hurt Your Credit?)

Former debt collectors will admit they did some pretty terrible things in pursuit of the almighty dollar, breaking the law with impunity and bullying or outright threatening debtors. “Collectors I knew regularly held contests to see who could make the most people cry in one day,” one told CNNMoney. A Buffalo, N.Y.-based investigative reporter who went undercover as a debt collector said that some agents would pretend to be law enforcement to scare people into thinking they would be arrested for their debts.