Houston appellate court "SLAPPS" down North Cypress Medical Center

As a Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney, I’ve handled multiple cases where the health care provided at North Cypress Medical Center is at issue. This former physician-owned hospital’s now part of the mega-chain of hospitals called HCA Houston Healthcare Gulf Coast Division.

I’m certainly not afraid to file a lawsuit against this hospital when a patient’s serious injury or death is related to this hospital’s negligence. But that’s another story.

From my experience in handling lawsuits involving care at North Cypress Medical Center, I’ve observed that this hospital appears to bill uninsured patients at rates that are higher than the hospital would be paid by private insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid.

If a bill doesn’t get paid, North Cypress Medical Center sometimes sues uninsured patients to collect them. So far in 2019 alone, the hospital’s parent company, North Cypress Medical Center Operating Ltd., has sued eight patients for allegedly unpaid medical bills.

All of the suits are pretty much verbatim in form and are filed with the Harris County District Clerk by the same attorney, based in Athens, Texas. The petitions include 15 requests for admission, which, if unanswered, are deemed admitted and will support a default judgment.

Personally, I find this practice disgusting. In my view, it’s literally adding insult to injury. Generally speaking, if the patient doesn’t have insurance coverage, there is a good likelihood that they can’t pay full-freight “chargemaster” rates for hospital care.

Of course, under Texas law, there is nothing stopping the for-profit North Cypress Medical Center from suing its uninsured patients for the payment of medical bills. From court filings, it looks like sometimes patients cough up enough money and settle the hospital lawsuit. Other times, the hospital may get a default judgment and add attorney’s fees into the mix.

Recently, though, an uninsured patient who was treated at North Cypress Medical Center after a slip-and-fall at a Kroger store took a different approach when faced by the hospital’s aggressive billing practices.

You can read all about it in an opinion released on May 30, 2019, by Houston’s First Court of Appeals. The case is styled North Cypress Medical Center Operating Company GP, LLC and North Cypress Medical Center Operating Company, Ltd. v. Angeline Norvil, No. 01-18-00582-CV.

When Angeline was treated at the hospital, she signed a contract that promised to “pay the patient’s account at the rates stated in North Cypress’ price list.” She also agreed to assign her right to payment of any settlement arising from her injury to the hospital.

North Cypress Medical Center promptly filed a hospital lien to protect its right to be paid the full charges in its price list. The patient negotiated a settlement with Kroger and asked the hospital to reduce its bill to accommodate all interested parties in the settlement. The patient specifically pointed out that the hospital had charged over $3,000 for an MRI, alleging that the average amount most health insurance companies pay hospitals in Texas is only $400.

Negotiating with healthcare providers is a common practice in personal injury cases. After all, patients have to pay attorney’s fees and expenses to get a settlement. The hospital flat-out refused to accept anything other than the total amount and even threatened to sue both the patient and her attorney.

I was thrilled to read that the patient wasn’t bullied and decided to file a lawsuit of her own, seeking declaratory judgment from a Houston trial court to limit the amount of the hospital lien. This is allowed under Texas Property Code Section 55.004(d)(1), which rejects the idea that charges can be astronomical and instead caps the amount of a hospital lien at the “reasonable and regular rate for the services.”

North Cypress Medical Center apparently didn’t want to be out-maneuvered in court and filed a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA, or anti-SLAPP statute), alleging that because the patient’s declaratory judgment was based on a hospital lien, filing the suit invaded the hospital’s right of free speech and right to petition.

Wow, just wow. The hospital was arguing that the patient violated the hospital’s free speech by asking a court to decide the amount that was illegally owed. This is the same hospital that has sued many uninsured patients, seeking judgments defining what it is legally owed.

I find the whole argument absurd. Apparently so did the trial court. And the Houston First Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial court’s order denying the hospital’s motion to dismiss Angeline’s declaratory judgment lawsuit on this free-speech ground.

If you’ve been seriously injured as a result of healthcare provided it North Cypress Medical Center, a top-rated Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney can help you evaluate your potential case.

Robert Painter
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Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.