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Hospitals get hostile with the uninsured

For millions of Americans without health insurance, bills are a nightmare, and as NBC's Chip Reid reports, those bills are often exorbitant and the tactics used to collect them harsh.

After her husband died last year, Maggie Loncar was left with $13,000 in unpaid hospital bills and no health insurance. Loncar, a Wal-Mart cashier making about $9 an hour, says she had nothing left after supporting a daughter in college and another at home.

"I went to them and I said, ‘Can I work out payments?’" says Loncar. "I have no insurance, you know. I said, can I can work out some payment through the hospital?’ and they said no."

The hospital, Christ Advocate Medical Center outside Chicago, repeatedly demanded payment.

"(They) harassed me at work, calling me at work. Collectors calling all hours of the day and night at my home and at my work," says Loncar.

Finally, the hospital sued her and won the right to take a portion of her paycheck.

Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., who has extensively investigated hospital billing of the uninsured, says what happened to Loncar has become common practice.

"Poor people, uninsured people, are sometimes getting bills that none of us could afford in a lifetime," says Greenwood.

The uninsured, his investigation shows, are billed two to three times more than those who have insurance. Why? Because insurance companies negotiate low prices with hospitals, but the uninsured have no one negotiating on their behalf.

To make matters worse, congressional investigators have found that many hospitals go to extraordinary lengths to get their money from the uninsured — taking them to court, putting liens on their homes and garnishing their wages.

In its defense, Loncar's hospital says discounts for the uninsured are available and that the "advocate collects on average just 5 percent of charges billed to uninsured patients. Any suggestion that we profit at the expense of the uninsured is ridiculous."

The American Hospital Association’s Carmella Coyle says the association condemns the use of harsh tactics. She adds that thousands of hospitals are now rewriting their policies and "making sure they do everything they possibly can to make care affordable for uninsured patients."

That could be good news for the millions of uninsured Americans who are hoping that an ordeal like Loncar's doesn't happen to them.