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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Hospitals sued patients much less often in 2020 than in the previous two years, and there are signs that this may signify change that lasts beyond the pandemic, according to new research by Johns Hopkins University provided exclusively to Axios.

Between the lines: Some hospitals that received a lot of negative publicity over their billing practices stopped suing patients altogether.

The big picture: Researchers and reporters alike have published numerous reports over the last few years highlighting hospitals that frequently sue patients, many of which are low-income.

  • Some of these individual hospitals — like VCU Medical Center and UVA University Hospital — stopped suing patients altogether in 2020,
  • The number of lawsuits filed overall by the largest 100 hospitals drastically decreased in 2020 — a drop of 92% from 2018.
  • “We do see hospitals respond to transparency. We do see public accountability working,” said Marty Makary, the lead researcher on a new study by Johns Hopkins on the billing practices of the largest 100 U.S. hospitals.

Yes, but: The JHU report only went through the end of July 2020, and the court system was severely disrupted by the pandemic.

Zoom in: JHU researchers did a separate analysis specifically on the practices of Virginia hospitals, a follow-up to their 2019 study that, in 2017, found 36% of them sued patients and garnished their wages to collect unpaid debt.

  • The new analysis found that Virginia hospitals filed 59% fewer lawsuits in the year following the publication of the original research, and 11 hospitals banned the practice.

What we’re watching: Makary thinks there are signs that a lasting shift may be underway.

  • The data show that there was a decrease in lawsuits from November 2019 to February of last year, he said — before the coronavirus shut things down in the U.S.
  • He’s also been encouraged by his conversations with hospital CEOs.
  • “People become detached from what’s actually happening on the ground,” he said. “I found appealing to the best in people was a powerful driver of improvement.”

Go deeper: Explore the full Axios-Johns Hopkins analysis

Go deeper

Sep 1, 2021 - Health

Idaho governor calls on National Guard to help hospitals as COVID-19 cases surge

Idaho Gov. Brad Little. Photo: Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Tuesday announced he is reactivating the National Guard and directing up to 370 additional people to help hospitals as they reach capacity.

Why it matters: There were only four intensive care unit beds available Tuesday in the entire state, out of nearly 400, the Republican governor wrote in a news release. There are more COVID-19 patients in ICU beds in the state "than ever before. The vast majority of them are unvaccinated," the release states.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Credit: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine Thursday night, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.