Harrison County

‘Hidden’ fee adds hundreds of dollars to ER bills at Biloxi hospital, lawsuit says

Merit Health hospitals in Mississippi are deceiving patients by failing to disclose a “facility fee” charged for using their emergency rooms in Mississippi, a lawsuit filed in federal court in Gulfport claims.

Attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of one client who was charged the fee without her knowledge, but they want class-action status for the case so that they can represent 100,000 or more people who they believe were charged the fee over the last three years at Merit emergency rooms in Mississippi.

“If this charge was properly disclosed to emergency room patients in advance of treatment, this surcharge would be a substantial factor in a patient’s decision to remain for treatment at (Merit’s) emergency room facilities or seek less costly treatment elsewhere,” the lawsuit says.

The “facility fee” is common in hospital emergency rooms across the country and usually isn’t publicly disclosed, according to national media and consumer reports.

Federal regulations allow the fee, but attorneys Christopher Van Cleave of Biloxi and Barry L. Kramer of Las Vegas argue in the lawsuit that, under Mississippi law, Merit should disclose the fee, which ranges from $589 to $3,568, before a patient is treated.

The fee is in addition to any treatment or medical services provided. On itemized bills, the fee is “hidden” under an unclear description, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit asks that presiding U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden certify the case for class action, order Merit to disclose the fee before treatment and cover legal fees, and grant any other relief deemed appropriate.

Van Cleave said the attorneys “are not in a position to comment on the pending litigation at this time.”

Merit Health has not responded to the Sun Herald’s request for comment. There are eight Merit Health emergency rooms in Mississippi, the lawsuit says.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Kimberly Henly, went to the Biloxi emergency room in May 2018. The lawsuit does not give her age or medical complaint but says Merit sent her a bill for $17,752, which included a hidden surcharge of $2,202.

After receiving a self-pay discount, Henly’s total bill was $6,213 with a facility fee of $771. The facility fee was listed on the bill as “ER DEPT EXTENSIV, which the lawsuit describes as “meaningless” to a patient.

Henly has paid $1,500 on her bill and continues to be billed for the balance.

Henly “was shocked when she found out that she had been charged a surcharge in addition to all of the individual items of treatment and services as a result of merely being seen in the hospital’s emergency room,” the lawsuit says.

Had she known about the fee, she would have left Merit’s emergency room and looked elsewhere for treatment, the lawsuit says.

Because the facility fee is common at hospital ERs, the Sun Herald checked with the Coast’s largest hospital, Gulfport Memorial, to see if they charge an emergency room facility fee and how the fee is labeled on patient bills.

Memorial does charge the fee, which ranges from $260 to $2,018, based on a number of factors. Memorial, a public hospital, did not respond to the question about how the fee is listed on patient bills.

Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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