Linda Burks owed more than $4,000 for her breast-cancer treatment at St. Dominic, a nonprofit, faith-based hospital in Jackson that hired a debt collector to sue her. Burks works as a full-time receptionist with health insurance who began taking on extra janitorial shifts to pay her bills.
After an investigative series, which the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting produced, and the Mississippi Free Press republished in its entirety, a woman who read the series was moved to action. Earlier this month, she connected with Burks and paid off her medical debt.
“We are supposed to help each other, right?” wrote the reader, who wished to remain anonymous. “People helped me when I needed it.”
St. Dominic Hospital has not changed its policies in response to the reporting, however.
Burks’ story was part of an investigation into the aggressive debt-collection policies of St. Dominic and its debt collectors. Reporting revealed that the hospital billed thousands of Mississippians when those patients should have qualified for free or reduced medical care; inflated patients’ bills by a third or more with attorney’s fees, court costs and 8% interest rates; garnished patients’ wages; seized money from patients’ bank accounts; and sued thousands of patients, many of whom work in low-wage industries like fast food and retail.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government gave the hospital millions of dollars in pandemic-relief funds, but St. Dominic continued to sue patients and even their employees, as the hospital sued more than a hundred staff members over medical debts.
Burks: ‘What Do I Do?’
Linda Burks was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 and received treatment at St. Dominic. She faithfully paid her bill for more than a year when she said she noticed St. Dominic was no longer automatically drafting from her account.
Burks said she reached out to St. Dominic proactively, but was told it was too late—her bill was sent to collections. Smith, Rouchon & Associates, a Jackson-based collection agency, began calling her, demanding more money from Burks. The debt collector sued her, tacking on more than $1,500 to her bill for attorney fees.
St. Dominic has annual operating expenses of roughly half a billion dollars and pays virtually no taxes because of its nonprofit status. Experts say suing patients over medical-debt accounts for a tiny fraction of a hospital’s revenue, but the effects can be devastating on patients. For Burks, it meant she became hesitant to return to St. Dominic for treatment because she feared being sued again.
“I am a receptionist with no money, living paycheck to paycheck,” Burks wrote to a judge in 2018. “… I want to live, and these tests play a big part in me knowing if I am staying cancer free … What do I do?”
Following the Founder’s Example?
In 2019, the Dominican Sisters for St. Dominic Health Services transferred sponsorship of St. Dominic Hospital to the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, whose inspiration, St. Francis of Assisi, was a man born into a rich family who renounced his wealth and begged with the poor.
“Let us then have charity and humility and let us give alms because they wash souls from the foulness of sins,” Francis wrote in the 13th century. “For men lose all which they leave in this world; they carry with them, however, the reward of charity and alms which they have given, for which they shall receive a recompense and worthy remuneration from the Lord.”
When reached this week, a spokesman for Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, the Louisiana-based health system that owns St. Dominic, reiterated that the hospital no longer directly sues patients—a policy that took place in July.
“We always want to be compassionate and improve the experiences for our patients,” spokesman Ryan Cross said in an email.
But St. Dominic rarely sued patients directly, instead relying on two local collection agencies to handle the vast majority of medical-debt collection suits. The hospital still allows its debt collectors to sue patients, garnish their wages, damage their credit and drive them into bankruptcy.