Former Hutcheson patients say debt collectors are now seeking bills for procedures done years ago

The exterior of Hutcheson Medical Center on Nov. 24, 2015. (photo by Maura Friedman)

Danny Johnson received a bill for $1,000 from a zombie, and he doesn't want to pay.

The letterhead on the bill reads "Hutcheson Medical Center," the bankrupt Fort Oglethorpe hospital that died last month in a sale to a company from Atlanta. But while Hutcheson is no more after 53 years, people are still trying to collect outstanding debts for the hospital.

Johnson said his debt isn't real, though. Among the stress of bankruptcy and lawsuits and counter lawsuits and a temporary closing, Johnson thinks, somebody at the hospital must have made a mistake.

Last year, he said, he paid Hutcheson $11,000 for a hernia surgery. He also owed $1,116 for work performed by an anesthesiologist, which he was paying in six installments of $186. He said he has paid five of those installments.

But on May 26, a letter arrived at his house from Hutcheson, asking for $914. He doesn't understand how the hospital came up with this bill. He doesn't plan to cut a check.

"I owe Hutcheson NOTHING!" he wrote in a message to the Times Free Press this week. "I paid them cash for everything while I didn't have insurance. Had to for them to do the surgery. This bill from them is a fraud."

Johnson is not the only confused former patient. In the past month, as Hutcheson has been sold and renamed Cornerstone Medical Center, others in the community say they have received calls and letters from Hutcheson and a debt collection company, asking for money. Some of these patients don't understand why they are being billed.

Including Johnson, the Times Free Press spoke this week to seven former Hutcheson patients who said they have been unfairly accused of failing to pay debts. Some said Hutcheson never billed them for operations. One patient said he received a bill for an operation he already had paid for. Another patient said the debt collectors asked her to pay for medication she never received.

A spokesman for the debt collector, Nationwide Recovery Services, declined to comment Friday. Hutcheson CEO Farrell Hayes and court-appointed trustee Ron Glass, meanwhile, did not return calls seeking comment.

But Cecilia McDonald Westbrook, a former Hutcheson patient, said some of these outstanding bills that arose since Hutcheson folded might be the result of miscommunication. Hospitals often hire debt collectors to try to recover money from patients who have not paid for services - often services dating back multiple years.

But important information can get lost in translation with a hospital like Hutcheson, which filed for bankruptcy in November 2014, laid off dozens of employees in waves, closed in December 2015 and then reopened weeks later under a management deal with ApolloMD, the Atlanta-based physicians' group that ultimately bought the hospital.

In Westbrook's case, she said she received a call from a Nationwide Recovery representative in early May. The woman on the other end of the line told Westbrook she owed $900. Westbrook said she didn't and hung up, thinking the caller was running some sort of scam.

She said she later called Hutcheson and learned that Medicare had rejected a bill in her name for estrogen cream. Westbrook said she never received that medication, asking if the bill was actually for the pain pills she needed after undergoing minor surgery.

Four days later, Westbrook said she called Hutcheson back to ask about the status of the $900 payment that loomed over her. The employee told her that Hutcheson's internal computer files now showed that her account had been locked. Westbrook then called Nationwide Recovery, where a representative told her that the billing issue had been resolved: There had been some "miscommunication."

"As far as I'm concerned," Westbrook told the Times Free Press, "I'm done. I don't have any further dispute."

She said she's heard from other former Hutcheson patients, also facing bills they don't think are legitimate: "There's a lot of people out there that I think are ready to fight."

Despite the threat of a $900 payment, Westbrook said her experience with Nationwide Recovery was positive, as the situation seems to have been resolved without a problem. Deedi Holder, the wife of another former patient, also said the debt collectors listened to her when she explained that the billing didn't make any sense.

In early May, Holder said, Nationwide Recovery representatives told her that her husband owed six payments for more than $2,000 for a colonoscopy he received at Hutcheson. Of those six, Holder said she thinks only about three of them are legitimate. And of those three, she said she only received one bill for $66. Her insurance company covered the cost.

She believes three requested payments totaling about $1,500 are not legitimate. She doesn't plan to pay them until she receives a bill explaining precisely what that money is going toward. She said a Nationwide Recovery representative has since told her not to worry about those payments.

She thinks Hutcheson's former administrators dropped the ball, failing to bill her husband when he visited them.

"We knew we owed some money," she said. "But we thought eventually we'd get a bill from somebody. The first thing we hear, it's in collections."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.