Mayo, like Gundersen, also sues its workers for medical debt

Mayo Clinic garnishes the wages of its own employees in La Crosse for medical debt, just like its rival Gundersen.

In total, Mayo Clinic Health System – Franciscan Healthcare took at least 96 cases to court to sue for about $770,000 in medical debt over 2018 and 2019 in La Crosse County, public court records reveal. The cases included seven Mayo employees in La Crosse and one in Vernon County from whom the nonprofit garnished $74,200 in wages.

In many of the cases it took to court, Mayo received permission to garnish wages, sometimes from people working two jobs. Employees of Kwik Trip, Reinhart Foodservice, La Crosse County, Logistics Health Incorporated, Sam’s Club and local school districts were among those who had their wages garnished by Mayo. The amounts Mayo sued for ranged from as little as $557 to as much as $28,000 in medical debt.

Mayo’s La Crosse hospital is part of the overall Mayo Clinic Health System, a massive and renowned nonprofit that had revenue of $11.1 billion in 2018, the most recent year for which records are publicly available.

Mayo took 56 cases to court for medical debt in La Crosse County alone in 2018, which included suing to garnish the wages of five employees, each with debts of less than $10,000. The nonprofit reported a surplus of $275 million for that year on its group return, which includes revenue from Mayo facilities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and several other states. Mayo also spent well over $1 million on political lobbying in 2018, the Mayo’s group nonprofit records show.

In this cases from 2018, Mayo sued to garnish $1,514 from one of its employees in La Crosse County. We redacted the person’s name to protect their identity.

Mayo spokesman Rick Thiesse did not answer an emailed question from The La Crosse Independent about whether Mayo would consider ending the practice of suing its own employees. But he said Mayo does offer several financial programs to assist people with their medical bills.

“It is only after our opportunities for assistance are declined or commitments are not honored that we move to legal action involving collection and/or garnishment,” he said. “Our process seeks to partner with patients in a caring and compassionate manner to address their bills. Utilization of the legal process is not our preference, and is a last resort that is necessary in some cases.”

Mayo sued significantly fewer employees locally than Gundersen in 2018 (5 versus 31) but Mayo’s operations are also smaller in La Crosse County than those of its rival. In several instances over the last two years, Mayo garnished wages for medical debt from Gundersen employees.

“Profiting on the medical misfortune of Americans”

Jayne Swiggum, a registered nurse from Gays Mills who is running as a Democrat in the state senate District 32 primary, said it was wrong that hospitals were sending medical debt to collections to “aggressively seek payment in full and profit on the medical misfortune of Americans.”

“The surprising thing is that hospitals and health care systems are financially ruining their own employees who have accrued medical debt,” she added. 

Medical debt is common in the U.S. and pushes millions into financial hardship and hundreds of thousands into bankruptcy every year. The total amount of past-due medical debt was estimated at $81 billion in 2019, held by 79 million Americans.

Swiggum said the solution to the problem is to vote for candidates who don’t take money from the health care industry and to transition the U.S. to a Medicare for All system.

“How do we help Americans escape the financial burden caused by unexpected medical debt? We legislate that healthcare is a right, not a privilege,” she said. “We hold our elected representatives’ feet to the fire by insisting on single payer health care for all Americans. We roust legislators out of office who have their hands out to private insurance, big health care, and big pharma, and replace them with progressives who will work together to legislate meaningful health care reform.”

The U.S. is alone among the 25 wealthiest nations in the world to not offer some form of universal health coverage. As a result, medical debt is a uniquely American problem among wealthy countries.

Mayo’s $170 million bailout

At the same time as Mayo was taking La Crosse County residents to court for small dollar medical debt, the tax-exempt nonprofit reported paying at least 21 current or former key employees more than $1 million in compensation in 2018, with John Noseworthy, who was Mayo CEO at the time, making just under $3.5 million for that year.

Mayo employees have taken pay cuts and furloughs in 2020 due to losses in revenue after elective care was postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mayo also paused suing for medical debt earlier this year, but has now resumed bringing cases to court to sue for past-due medical debt. 

In July, Mayo Clinic Health System Franciscan Medical Center in La Crosse received a $9.6 million grant from the federal government, which came out of a coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress. In total, the Mayo Clinic received $170 million in bailout funds, according to a report in The New York Times published in June, even though the organization was sitting on eight months of cash reserves. Those funds did not prevent Mayo from furloughing or reducing the working hours of around 23,000 employees.

Notes: The 96 cases Mayo took to court over 2018 and 2019 for medical debt do not include cases that were dismissed or cases brought by Mayo in neighboring counties.

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By Eric Timmons. Email questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com. Top photo credit: The Mayo Clinic logo at Mayo Clinic Square, Downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota/Tony Webster/CC BY 2.0.