By M.B. Owens of The City Paper

In what is becoming a growing trend in health care litigation, uninsured patients are suing Brentwood-based Community Health Systems Inc. (CHS).

The class action suit, filed in August in Barbour County Circuit Court against Lakeview Community Hospital of Eufaula, Ala., and its parent company CHS, accuses the hospital company of overcharging the uninsured.

The suit has recently been transferred to Federal court at the request of the defendants.

The suit specifically alleges that in July 2003 an uninsured patient, Arleana Lawrence of Eufaula, Ala., entered into the hospital for treatment and was required to fill out and sign an admission form before receiving treatment. No prices for treatment were provided until after the patient was released from the facility.

The suit further alleges that Lakeview Community charged her and other uninsured patients more than it charges Medicare or privately insured patients.

“The charges are not only excessive to the uninsured, but the ratios compared to the insured are unreasonable,” said Joseph Aughtman, partner in the law firm of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis and Miles of Montgomery, Ala.

CHS could not be reached for comment.

In the last several months this and other law firms, including another Alabama law firm, Archie Lamb, have filed class action lawsuits nationwide. These suits have been against major hospital companies such as Nashville-based HCA Inc. and Tenet Healthcare Corp. on the behalf of uninsured. HCS and Tenet are the two largest for-profit hospital companies in the U.S.

The hospital companies generally have programs set up to assist uninsured patients in paying their bill.

HCA, for instance, used counselors that work with their uninsured patients to provide discounts and to work out payment schedules.

The plaintiffs do not believe the hospitals go far enough in equalizing their charges.

However, the hospitals say they have not been given enough time to make changes.

“The system was working to fix the problem,” said Richard G. Baker, chairman of the health law department for the Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz law firm in Nashville. “This is a continuation of the suits that began in California against the religious nonprofit hospitals.”

Baker said if the litigation is over in a year, then the litigants are interested in changing the billing policies, but if they go on longer, then they are really interested in making money.

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