Despite growing evidence of the harm caused by medical debt

Despite growing evidence of the harm caused by medical debt, hundreds of U.S. hospitals maintain policies to aggressively pursue patients for unpaid bills, using tactics such as lawsuits, selling patient accounts to debt buyers, and reporting patients to credit rating agencies, a KHN investigation shows.

The collection practices are commonplace among all types of hospitals in all regions of the country, including public university systems, leading academic institutions, small community hospitals, for-profit chains, and nonprofit Catholic systems.

Individual hospital systems have come under scrutiny in recent years for suing patients. But the KHN analysis shows the practice is widespread, suggesting most of the nation's approximately 5,100 hospitals serving the general public have policies to use legal action or other aggressive tactics against patients.

Diagnosis: Debt

SHOTS - HEALTH NEWS

Sick and struggling to pay, 100 million people in the U.S. live with medical debt

And although industry officials say they are careful about how they target patients for unpaid bills, few institutions have renounced what federal rules call "extraordinary collection actions," even as medical debt forces millions of Americans to cut back on food and other essentials, drain retirement savings, and make other difficult sacrifices.

At the same time, a majority of hospitals scrutinized by KHN effectively shroud their collection activities, publicly posting incomplete or in many cases no information about what can happen to patients if they can't pay.