Unpaid doctor bills go public

By MIKE KELLER
http://www.sunherald.com

A recent Mississippi Supreme Court ruling could clear the way to make medical procedures public if patients are late to pay their doctor bills, a lawyer on the case said.

“If you don’t pay your doctor’s bill, your medical privilege is waived,” said Frank Russell, a former Tupelo judge who represented patient Patty Kyle. “You could have a sex change operation and if you don’t pay, they are going to let the world know.”

The case, Franklin Collection Service Inc. v. Patty Kyle, began when Kyle did not pay medical bills totaling $6,390 to her doctor, the court reported in its decision. The doctor turned her delinquent account over to Franklin Collection Service of Tupelo. In June 2003, the collection agency filed a suit to recover the money under a state law.

In the lawsuit, the collection agency included an itemized list of all the procedures performed on Kyle. Her lawyer filed a counter claim that the agency violated doctor-patient confidentiality by putting the specifics of her procedure into the suit, which is a public record and available for anyone to see.

William V. Westbrook III, a Gulfport attorney representing the collection agency, said the itemized list already was required under the law and this case showed the requirement also applies to medical bills.

A lower court decided the law was unclear on whether the collection agency could disclose personal information in trying to collect. The state Supreme Court was asked to clarify.

The court wrote Kyle could not expect confidentiality under an exception to the state rule governing physician-patient privilege. The exception says, “there is no privilege when a controversy develops between physician and patient, such as in a dispute over medical fees or medical malpractice.”

Westbrook said his clients were happy the court agreed with their interpretation of the law.

The majority opinion reinforces “the rule that physician-patient privilege does not apply to a dispute over non-payment of a bill,” he said.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. wrote, “The majority holds that a patient may waive her patient-physician privilege by failing to timely pay her medical bill, even if the patient makes a good faith effort to settle the claim. In doing so, the majority overrules a duly enacted statute as well as nearly a century of precedent. For these reasons, I must respectfully disagree.”

Justice Jess Dickinson, in writing the majority decision, also included an interpretation of the state law that covers patient-physician privileged communications.

Dickinson quoted the law in saying the only privilege established is for “communications made to a physician… by a patient under his (or her) charge or by one seeking professional advice… ”

“Thus, if we are to be faithful to the statute, we must limit what is privileged thereunder to communications made to a physician by a patient,” he wrote.
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