Allina to pause controversial practices for people with medical debt

A brick building of a clinic
Allina Health clinic in Hastings, Minn.
Tony Webster | Flickr

Updated: 4:45 p.m.

Allina Health is putting a pause on billing practices that allegedly forced people with medical debt to pay it off in full before they could make new appointments, the system announced Friday.

“Allina Health will take a thoughtful pause on any new interruptions to non-emergent, outpatient clinic scheduling while we re-examine our policy,” said Allina CEO Lisa Shannon in a statement. “Reducing barriers to care is central to our mission as a steward of community health, and we will carefully study additional ways to educate our teams about the extensive financial services available to patients experiencing financial barriers to care.”

Last week, the New York Times published an investigation into Allina’s billing practices, alleging that the company refused to provide certain types of care for patients with at least $4,500 in medical debt. While the system would provide emergency care, the article said it had a written policy to deny other services until that debt was paid off.

In the statement, Shannon said that Allina is “committed to listening to our community and working to better understand the barriers to accessing the financial support available to our patients,” and plans to “engage community partners” during this pause to discuss “reducing barriers to care and the collective role we all play in that process.”

State Rep. Liz Reyer, DFL-Eagan, said the decision is “clearly a positive step.”

“It solves that immediate problem which can have such serious health implications,” she said. “I will be watching with interest to see what they’re doing during that pause and how they’re thinking about the issue of medical debt.”

In response to the NYT’s original investigation, state Attorney General Keith Ellison told MPR news in a statement that he was closely reviewing the story, and anyone with knowledge of the practices should contact his office, so they can determine if the organization broke any federal or state laws. The AG referred to the Hospital Agreement, a deal with nonprofit hospitals across the state which negotiates protections for patients, including billing practices and financial assistance or “charity care.”

On Friday afternoon Ellison said in a statement, "I continue to be concerned about reports of Allina denying needed non-emergency medical care solely on the basis of medical debt. In the last week, my office has heard from a good number of Allina patients who have shared their own upsetting stories of being denied care for this reason. I continue to encourage anyone who has experienced or is familiar with these practices to contact the Attorney General’s office."

Allina has said its practices do not violate state or federal law, that it is in compliance with the Hospital Agreement, and would welcome a conversation with the AG’s office about its billing practices.

Shannon said the organization is “proud of the charity care and robust financial assistance we offer” and encourages anyone who needs financial assistance to get in touch with the organization.

“My reaction on whether it's good faith or not really depends on what happens next. Do they unpause it as soon as the lights aren't quite so bright?” Reyer said. “It's really too soon to say, or I'm not close enough to say what the motivation is and what the long-term outcome would be.”