In 2018, Gundersen Health System had more than $1.1 billion in revenue, paid its CEO over $1 million, and spent $231,000 on political lobbying.
At the same time, Gundersen was also suing dozens of its own workers for medical debts, asking the courts for permission to garnish $75,000 in wages from 31 of its employees, many of whom were among the health system’s lowest paid workers.
|The union, along with Citizen Action Wisconsin, has organized a rally at Poage Park, La Crosse, on Sunday, Aug. 2, at 3 p.m., to highlight the issue of medical debt and its impact on the community.|
The cases were among 326 Gundersen took to court in La Crosse County alone in 2018 to recoup $721,000 in medical debt, in many instances for amounts totaling less than $1,000. In one case, Gundersen sued for a medical debt of just $30. All the numbers come from public court records.
Now, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, the union that represents Certified Nursing Assistants, laundry, cafeteria, janitorial, and other employees at Gundersen facilities, is calling on the hospital system to stop suing its own workers and provide them with decent, affordable health insurance.
“Medical debt affects our whole community but, due to the stigma around it, it is rarely discussed,” said Amy Dummer, of SEIU. “This silence allows hospitals like Gundersen to continue to take community members to collections and garnish their own employees’ wages with no accountability. We are ending the silence now.”
Dummer said SEIU is also calling on Gundersen, which is a tax-exempt nonprofit, to forgive existing debt and to stop suing both its own employees and community members in general for medical debt.
In 2018, which is the most recent year for which Gundersen’s financial records are publicly available, the nonprofit reported a surplus of $117 million for Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center, the organization’s hospital in La Crosse. The $75,000 Gundersen garnished from its employees amounts to 0.06% of that surplus.
“The amount of money Gundersen collected in 2018 from medical debt and from garnishing its own employees’ wages is a miniscule percentage of its budget surplus that year,” Dummer said.
Of the 326 cases Gundersen took to court for medical debt in 2018 in La Crosse County, 177 had wages garnished, totaling just under $550,000, according to court records.
Gundersen is far from alone among health care providers, which are often tax-exempt nonprofits, in regularly sending medical debt to collections and garnishing wages. The practice is common across the U.S. and medical debt bankrupts hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.
Ben Wilson, an organizer with Citizen Action Wisconsin, said that Citizen Action supported the introduction of Medicare for All as the best way to fix the nation’s health care system in the long term. In the meantime, he said it was time for providers like Gundersen to stop suing people for medical debt. Citizen Action of Wisconsin is helping to organize Sunday’s Stand Against Medical Debt rally with SEIU.
“We believe that no one should be sued over medical debt. Medical bankruptcy is a uniquely American problem and it is a stain on our country,” Wilson said. “On a personal level, as someone who has filed bankruptcy in part due to medical debt, I understand that we need to fight against health care providers who ruin people’s financial futures by suing over small dollar medical debt.”
Gundersen continued to sue La Crosse residents, including its own workers, throughout 2019 and well into 2020, often for debt amounts of below $10,000. While these may be relatively small sums for a billion dollar organization, they could be catastrophic for many of those being sued.
“Medical debt is not something people chose but more often the result of a catastrophic event or long-term illness,” Dummer said. “Fear of debt and potential negative effects on credit ratings can lead people to avoid medical treatment, putting them at higher risk for serious illness.”
The $75,000 garnished from the wages of Gundersen’s own employees in 2018 amounts to 7.1% of CEO Scott Rathgaber’s pay packet for that year. Rathgaber’s total compensation increased by 62.5% between 2015 and 2018, from $655,000 to $1.064 million, according to public records.
Dummer noted that those most at risk from being sued for medical debt are often the most marginalized members of society.
“Medical debt affects low-income workers and because of our country’s structural oppression, it disproportionately affects Black, Hmong, Latinx, LGBTQIA+, Ho-Chunk and other Indigenous people in our community,” she said.
Gundersen officials did not respond to a request for comment on this story. We will update the story if they do provide a statement.
Nonprofit hospitals are required to report the amount of charitable care they provide, which in 2018 was about $2.9 million for Gundersen, or 0.3% of the hospital’s revenue for that year.
By Eric Timmons. Email questions to email@example.com.
Did you lose your health insurance because of a job layoff/furlough or other life change? If you had qualifying health coverage, according to healthcare.gov, you only have SIXTY days to secure marketplace coverage!
It is called a Special Enrollment Period (SEP) but the “window” is only open for SIXTY days. If you need assistance or have more questions, please dial 211! Click here for Covering Wisconsin, a nonprofit agency that helps people figure out health insurance coverage for free! Help is available across the state!
And, remember, in Dane County*, if your new income falls between 100 and 150% of the Federal Poverty Level, you may be able to get your health insurance premiums paid thru the HealthConnect program, administered by United Way of Dane County.
Below are Covid Related MOUs and policies between SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin and Wisconsin Healthcare Employers.
The public and the media want to hear about the experiences of health care workers at this time. Recent Media with SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin & supporters.
Amid ongoing demonstrations in defense of Black lives across the country, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin releases the following statement:
“We are a union made up of healthcare workers -Black, white, and brown- who are committed to providing care and working toward a healthier society for all. We join in solidarity with those expressing pain, anger, and outrage at the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, David McAtee and countless other Black Lives.
“This Nurses Week, instead of a supportive tweet or an empty proclamation honoring the work and sacrifices of nurses, we call on lawmakers to do something that nurses actually need. Pass legislation that prioritizes the health, safety and economic well-being of all working people.”
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV-NBC)– Channel 15
MADISON, Wis. (WISC-CBS)–Channel 3000
Healthcare workers need more than a “thank you”. To advocate too for covid Paid Sick Time, Hazard Pay, More PPE and health insurance! Support a Healthcare Heroes Act
Apr 22, 2020
“Shari Signer, an inpatient nurse in Madison, spoke with reporters on the Tuesday call organized by Pocan’s office. She and her husband are both nurses….”I’m expected to wear the same mask from patient room to patient room, despite their isolation, despite their health care conditions,” she said. At the end of the day, she puts the mask in a brown paper bag to be re-worn the next day. “It is outrageous that health care workers continue to show up for a battle against a deadly virus without the protection, resources and support that we need to safely do our jobs,” she said.
“Kathy Hintz cleans rooms at an Appleton hospital. Not long ago, she said she cleaned her first room where a patient infected with the disease died. She said she lacked adequate protective gear and is monitoring herself for symptoms of COVID-19.
“Since the COVID-19 pandemic started I live on pins and needles,” said Hintz, who can’t babysit her grandchildren for fear of infecting them. “When I accepted this job as a housekeeper I didn’t ever think that it might mean I’d be signing my death certificate,” she said, bursting into tears during the teleconference.
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin Retirees have contacted all members of the Wisconsin Legislature calling for more testing, funding a public health strategy and better support for Wisconsin’s healthcare workforce.
Retired Nurses and other healthcare professionals are outraged that misguided individuals would congregate to disagree with the sound science of “safer at home”.
In order to get people safely back to work we urge the adoption of a proven public health strategy, one that relies on testing and contact tracing to determine who has been exposed to the virus. When you know who has the virus you can then take appropriate intervention, i.e. isolation and treatment.
Imagine a system where if you are diagnosed with exposure or have the virus that you are supported by health care professionals who find you, talk to you, educate you and your family on doing what is effective.
Wisconsin hospitals are furloughing RNs and Wisconsin had a $800+ million surplus plus Billions more coming from the Federal Government. Let’s put them to work testing and educating.
A public health strategy puts people back to work helping others and makes our communities safer. It will also provide the structure needed for future outbreaks so there is confidence and trust in our government, leaders, and health care systems.
We need more testing and don’t need protesting against public health. Fund a public health strategy and better support Wisconsin’s healthcare workforce.
Until Covid-19 infection rates come down, we are all safer at home.
#SEIUhcWI, #SaferAtHome, #MoreMaskNow, #HealthcareHeroesAct
|Justin Byers, a paramedic in La Crosse, said his biggest concern is what would happen if he or any of his colleagues contracted the novel coronavirus.||Tell Your Wisconsin Assembly Person and State Senator to Support a Healthcare Heroes Act!|
“If I get sick with COVID-19, I want to make sure I can financially support my family,” Byers said. “Right now, if we get sick, we have to take time out of our PTO but when we take PTO, we don’t get full pay.”
State Rep. Robyn Vining (D – Wauwatosa) was on the healthcare workers’ call. Vining’s office shared a letter signed by 37 state lawmakers calling on legislative leaders to ensure the next relief legislation package supplies PPE, guarantees fully-paid sick leave, provides hazard pay, and provides full healthcare coverage for frontline workers.
This story was written by A. J. Bayatpour, WKOW TV, Channel 27
On April 1st, at 5pm, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin is hosting a live conference call to address issues regarding COVID-19 and answer questions from healthcare workers from Wisconsin. A representative of the Department of Health Services will be present to provide some updates. In order to best represent the state’s healthcare workers, SEIU needs to hear from you.
Please submit your top workplace concerns in regards to COVID-19 on the link below:
This is the list of information requested by our Union: