A Catholic hospital system is suing several California patients and their advocates because the patients allegedly refused to be discharged. The suits invoke a novel legal approach: accusing them of trespassing under a California law intended to stop anti-abortion protesters from blocking access to health facilities.
Dignity Health has filed three lawsuits in Sacramento County accusing patients of “commercial blockade” for refusing to vacate hospital beds even though the health care provider had deemed them medically and legally eligible to either go home or go to another facility. Dignity alleges the patients “unreasonably and unlawfully” refused discharge, disrupting its ability to serve others at a time when health facilities were overwhelmed by COVID-19.
Relatives and advocates say the patients were exercising their right to be discharged to a facility that offered appropriate care and that they could afford, not simply sent home without the ability to take care of themselves.
The lawsuits could set important precedents for both the use of the California commercial blockade statute to go after patients and their advocates and, more broadly, the handling of cases in which the hospital and patient can’t agree on a plan for discharge.
The state’s hospital lobby recently highlighted discharge delays as a growing problem costing the industry $2.9 billion a year. The California Hospital Association estimates at least 5,000 patients every day experience such delays, often in trying to identify skilled nursing facilities.
Patient advocates, who typically charge patients a fee to help them navigate the health care system, warn that a decision in favor of Dignity could chill their entire profession and give hospitals a new avenue to seek money from patients.
“It could be a watershed case if it goes in either direction,” said Tony Chicotel, senior staff attorney with the Berkeley-based California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, who has worked on hospital discharge cases. “If it’s a defense verdict, we’ll know our laws are somewhat protective of patients. And if it’s a plaintiff’s verdict, patients around the state could be dumped and us advocates will have to figure out what we can talk about without getting sued.”
San Francisco-based Dignity Health, a tax-exempt organization with $9.5 billion in revenue, was founded by nuns to serve the sick and the poor. Spokesperson William Hodges said the health system doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
A 68-year-old patient, Daphne Muehlendorf, who is blind, began suffering a series of seizures in 2021 and was in and out of the hospital. Each time she went home, her daughters say, her health declined, with slurred speech and the inability to carry a cup, despite receiving in-home physical therapy. By the time she entered the acute rehabilitation unit at Dignity’s Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, she had already applied for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, which covers the cost of nursing homes if the patient demonstrates both financial and medical need.
Dignity, which has not specified an amount it seeks in damages, contends in its lawsuit that doctors determined Muehlendorf was eligible to go home but the family refused for weeks while waiting for her Medi-Cal assisted living waiver to be approved. Once that came through, Muehlendorf was transferred to Bruceville Terrace, one of Dignity’s skilled nursing facilities in Sacramento.
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