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'Could be landmark litigation': NC Treasurer, patient advocate weigh in on lawsuit vs. HCA

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Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

The North Carolina Treasurer and a patient advocate are weighing in on a class-action lawsuit filed against HCA Healthcare that accuses the system of putting profit over people.

On Monday, Aug. 10, a group of Western North Carolina residents, represented by two law firms, filed a class action lawsuit alleging that HCA Healthcare's practices have led to higher prices and worsened the quality of care in the region.

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The 87-page lawsuit alleges that "to maximize profits, HCA has been cutting costs and staff at an alarming rate, leaving Western North Carolinians with increasingly bad healthcare at an ever-growing price." The lawsuit also claims HCA "uses illegal contracting and negotiating practices, does not comply with price transparency laws, and has cut access to critical rural services."

Karen Sanders is a registered nurse and patient advocate, serving as a liaison between patients having problems and their healthcare providers. She said she mostly gets complaints regarding Mission Health, which is owned by HCA Healthcare. Many of those complaints mirror what the plaintiffs in that lawsuit claim, she explains.

"I get a lot of phone calls from patients who are inpatients at Mission Hospital, complaining that their call lights aren't being answered, that it's very disorganized, that nurses don't come into their rooms, except after several hours," Sanders said.

So, the class-action, anti-trust lawsuit against HCA and Mission came as no surprise to her, she says.

"We have a hospital that's for-profit that is having higher charges for patient experiences and procedures, treatments, that are higher than a lot of other places in the region and in the state," she said. "We want this hospital to revolve around patient experience and not making money."

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She said this lawsuit could be huge for people in Western North Carolina and beyond.

"I think this could be a landmark decision to help all of us in this country be aware of how to make our healthcare system more affordable for all of us," Sanders said.

Dale Folwell, the state treasurer, said he, too, has heard many complaints about Mission Health from the many state employees who are customers of the system.

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"This lawsuit is just one of the things that is an indication to me that anyone who's in favor of secret healthcare costs are going to be on the wrong side of history," Folwell said. "The complaints that I get from Western North Carolina about the quality and the price of healthcare have just increased over the last couple of years."

He said one of the most common complaints he's heard is a lack of transparency surrounding billing.

"The impact of this lawsuit is going to be a further investigation into these secret contracts and these secret prices. At the end of the day, we have to figure out what's right, get it right and keep it right," Folwell said.

He said the consolidation of healthcare systems often "results in the concentration of power being in the hands of fewer people, which drives down quality, drives down access, drives up costs."

State Attorney General Josh Stein approved the sale of Mission Health to HCA back in 2019. He provided News 13 with the following statement regarding the lawsuit and the original sale.

"Our office is reviewing the lawsuit and will continue to watch this closely. Attorney General Stein strongly believes in fair and transparent health care pricing for North Carolinians, as is evidenced by his work to protect the Affordable Care Act and this effort, among others.
The statute that specifies the AG Office’s authority to review the transaction between Mission and HCA does not include general oversight over pricing or quality of care. As a result, our Office’s review of that transaction was necessarily limited to items such as ensuring that the full value of Mission’s assets would be used for public purposes, that the Dogwood Health Trust be independent and representative, and that healthcare services continued to be provided in western North Carolina."

Nancy Lindell, a Mission Health/HCA Healthcare NC Division spokesperson, gave the following statement:

"Once we have been served with the lawsuit, we will respond appropriately through the legal process. We are committed to caring for Western North Carolina as demonstrated through more than $330 million in Charity Care and uninsured discounts we provided in 2020, expansion of hospital services including the opening of the North Tower, a new Pediatric ER, and securing land for a new 120-bed behavioral health hospital. Further, we have invested in our colleagues with onboarding nearly 1,200 new members this year and providing more than $3 million in student loan and tuition reimbursement in 2020. Mission Health is committed to the health and well-being of every person who comes to us for care and we are proud of our dedicated hospital teams that are facing the many challenges of this pandemic and the exceptional care they have provided to our patients."
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