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NC hospitals becoming more open about charity care guidelines

http://66.225.205.104/JR20100211.mp3

In recent years, North Carolina's hospitals have faced pressure from advocacy groups to be more forthcoming about their policies for offering free medical care to people without insurance. A new report out this week from the NC Justice Center gives high marks for charity care to a major hospital network in Charlotte. Charity care is the kind of thing a lot of people don't find out about until it's too late. Hospitals already get a lot of patients who can't or won't pay their bills, so advertising that they offer free medical care isn't exactly good for the bottom line. But most North Carolina hospitals are nonprofits and they're obligated to be more community-minded. They're becoming more open about their charity care. "It's a big step for hospitals to even disclose what their charity care policy is," says Adam Linker, a health policy analyst with the NC Justice Center's Health Care Access Coalition. "The best charity care policy that we've seen is from Novant Health which owns several hospitals in the Charlotte region and Winston-Salem." Linker analyzed the charity care policies of all 112 hospitals in the state and found 35 percent post comprehensive charity care policies online so patients can easily see if they qualify. He says Novant Health, which runs Presbyterian Hospital, has the most generous charity care guidelines, which are clearly stated on its website. For example, an uninsured patient making less than $66,000 with a family of four can have his hospital bills waived completely. At Carolinas Medical Center, that same patient must make only $33,000 to qualify for the same level of free care. And Carolinas Medical Center offers only vague income guideline information on its website. North Carolina Hospital Association spokesman Don Dalton says charity care is on the rise statewide as rising unemployment leaves more people without insurance: "It could very possibly be that 2009 is the first year that North Carolina hospitals will exceed a billion dollars in provision of charity care," says Dalton. That's more than twice the amount of free medical care North Carolina hospitals offered in 2005.