43,000 Santa Clara Valley Healthcare patients possibly entitled to refunds

Santa Clara Valley Healthcare is notifying 43,000 former patients that they may be eligible for refunds or billing corrections because the medical facility did not fulfill its charity care obligations.

This action stems from a settlement of a lawsuit filed in 2019, alleging that the public hospital system failed to apprise three former patients of its charity care program or discounted payment policies. The plaintiffs said that they received bills ranging from $8,000 to $35,000 between 2013 and 2017. Those bills were subsequently sent to collections.

The revelation of the settlement was initially reported by KFF Health News.

Among the plaintiffs was a single mother of two, who was a full-time student and uninsured. Another was an unhoused resident.

In accordance with California’s Hospital Fair Pricing Policies law, people unable to afford their medical expenses can qualify for partial or complete bill forgiveness through charity care. Eligibility for charity care extends to patients regardless of their insurance or immigration status.

A general view of Santa Clara County's flagship public health hospital, Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California, on December 17, 2020. . (Photo by Neal Waters/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Helen Tran, a senior attorney with the Western Center on Law & Poverty, which filed the lawsuit in connection with the Consumer Law Center, emphasized that the settlement sends a strong signal to healthcare systems throughout the state to adhere to charity care regulations as it is the law.

"We heard throughout the years, from patients and consumers, that they don't have the opportunity for discounted or free care and that hospitals weren't fully transparent," said Tran.

As an integral part of the settlement, the county is obligated to provide patients with written information on how they can qualify for free or discounted care. This information must be provided in eight languages, including English.

"Santa Clara Valley Healthcare prides itself on delivering quality healthcare for individuals and communities that face significant socioeconomic hurdles to receiving this basic benefit," said Paul Lorenz, chief executive officer for SCVH, expressed in a written statement.

The county has also introduced a retroactive financial assistance program for former patients whose medical bills were sent to collections between 2018 and 2021. The program determines eligibility for full or partial discounts on prior medical bills.

The amount of refunds will vary for patients. Tran emphasized that patients should respond to notices that county officials are sending by mail.

"There is money on the table for people," she said. "No matter the size, it might mean something to families."