By Emily Vaculik, Albany Law Student, and Bob Cohen, Citizen Action Policy Director
When you buy a car, you can assume that the purchase price in your contract is the total amount you are expected to pay. It is illegal for the dealership to bill you extra for already included features like a roof rack weeks or months later. Yet, hospital patients sometimes receive additional bills for medical procedures weeks after the original bill. Health providers also sometimes engage in other deceptive practices, like billing patients for “facility fees” that don’t represent the specific medical procedures they performed, unclear bills that don’t explain the charges, and high “surprise bills” from out-of-network providers which you were led to believe were in network.
These practices would be prohibited by the Patient Medical Debt Protection Practices Act, which (A3470/S2521) HCFANY supports. However, many are also illegal under New York’s “deceptive practices” statute (General Business Law section 349), as well as a similar law governing the practices of the Attorney General (Executive Law section 63). The deceptive practices statute provides that consumers who suffer losses due to “materially misleading” acts or practices by businesses — including hospitals and other providers — can recover their damages through private court actions. The law, however, requires the complaint to concern “consumer-oriented conduct”: it must have the potential to impact more than one consumer. Among the practices that courts in different states have found to violate state deceptive practices laws are the failure to disclose mandatory tips by restaurants, and the failure by hospital to disclose their billing practices.
While some of the practices prohibited by the PMDPA are also covered by existing law, that definitely does not at all mean that the bill isn’t needed! The damages under the deceptive practices law are totally inadequate. In addition, while you can now file a complaint with the Attorney General, if that office can’t informally resolve your complaint, your only course is to hope the Attorney General will select your case as one of the small number each year it can litigate, or (for issues where the amount in controversy is more than the monetary limits for Small Claims Court actions), you can try to find an attorney to bring an expensive and time-consuming deceptive practice court action on your behalf.
The PMDPA also lays out some of the specific practices that are illegal in detail, so you don’t have to rely on the judge agreeing with your interpretation of the law, as you would if you brought a deceptive practices lawsuit. Finally, some PMDPA provisions, like the cap on the interest rates hospitals can charge for medical bills are simply not covered by any existing law. Medical debt has a huge impact on New Yorkers, so we need a specific law that addresses the major abuses that impact us every day.