KCBD INVESTIGATES: UMC expects to pay more than $72 million in uncompensated care

KCBD INVESTIGATES: UMC expects to pay more than $72 million in uncompensated care

LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - John Hawkins owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital bills that he can't pay, and he's not alone. UMC expects to absorb $72 million in unfunded care this year.

"It's like a book," Hawkins said.

And while he knows by the "book" of bills that he owes a lot, he was not sure of the total.

"I don't know," Hawkins said.

The KCBD Investigates Team learned Hawkins unpaid medical bills for the last year alone, amount to more than $450,000, costs Hawkins said he just cannot pay.

"It's a substantial cost," said Eric Finley with University Medical Center.

Finley said in 2015, the hospital absorbed roughly $64 million in unfunded care.

That number grew to nearly $72 million in 2016.

Despite a drop in unfunded care, Finley said the hospital expects to absorb just more than $72 million by the end of the year.

Finley said those are real dollars, actual costs paid by Lubbock County taxpayers and hospital profits.

"We get about $20 million annually in property taxes from the residents of Lubbock County to help offset that cost," Finley said.

The KCBD Investigates Team asked if Finley expects property taxes to increase in order to help absorb the costs.

"I don't. UMC has maintained the same property tax rate for the last nine years, so I really see that staying the same for the foreseeable future," Finley said.

Finley said UMC's tax rate is one of the lowest in the state.

"You look at places like Dallas County, Harris County, or Bexar County where their public hospital districts rely about 50 percent of their revenues come from property taxes. In Lubbock, it's about four percent," Finley said.

However, county hospitals are not the only ones that write off large bills.

Lee Turner, Vice President of Mission Integration at Covenant Health, said the cost of what they call uncompensated care runs between $75 to $80 million annually.

"I think it's an interesting perspective in terms of taxpayer burden because really and truly, the cost of uncompensated care is born by all of us. I consider it to be a hidden tax. Well, how do you and I pay for it? Well, we pay for it through our own insurance premiums," Turner said.

Covenant Health, like UMC, said it works to find programs patients qualify for, often discounting bills considerably, but still the costs are high.

"We dedicate 10 percent of our annual revenue to the poor and for community building," Turner said.

Dr. Christopher Piel is the Medical Director of UMC's Emergency Center and said the hospital is working to lower the unfunded care costs while still seeing those patients.

"We now have an urgent care on site at UMC. If we see you in the emergency room for something really minor, we will see you here quickly to make sure there is nothing we need to do here, and if we deem it appropriate to go to urgent care, we actually get rid of the ER visit. If the cost is billed to you, it is much less than the emergency department visits" Dr. Piel said.

As for Hawkins, he is now off the streets and out of the emergency room.

He has moved into Open Door's Housing First Program, which provides permanent, supportive housing for the chronically homeless.

Since making the move in April, his weekly visits to the ER have decreased, meaning those unpaid bills have as well.

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