Dr. Viktor Limanskiy administers the COVID-19 vaccine at the Stockton Shelter for the Homeless in Stockton, Calif., in April 2021. (Photo courtesy Joan Singson, Director of Population Health Management at San Joaquin General Hospital)

Over 60 San Joaquin County residents will be issued refunds from a hospital that wrongfully issued them bills for COVID-19-related care, the office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta said Friday.

An investigation into the improper billing was launched in late 2020 after the state’s Department of Justice received complaints from the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF) that 64 patients had been wrongly billed for their COVID care at San Joaquin General Hospital, Bonta’s office said.

“In the midst of a pandemic, these patients were issued burdensome bills for services that were supposed to be completely free. Today, we are taking steps to correct that injustice,” Bonta said in a statement.

The hospital said only one case of improper billing was paid.

A spokesperson for San Joaquin County, which oversees the general hospital, said that during early “chaotic” days of the pandemic, state and federal rules were in development regarding billing COVID patients.

“We conducted an internal review of over 17 thousand hospital claims to confirm that bills had been suppressed to patients for cost sharing related to COVID-19 related care,” said a statement from the county. “Of the 64 claims flagged as errors in the claims review, the vast majority were identified and suppressed by hospital staff before there were any collection efforts.”

The county said there was only one instance of a payment in error for COVID-related care, which was a $200 cost sharing fee improperly imposed by a patient’s insurer.

“We have fully refunded this amount and informed all affected patients that they do not owe anything for their COVID care,” the county said.

Most COVID-19 related care is provided free by the state and people do not need to have health insurance or be a citizen. Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), California’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal, is authorized to provide access to all medically necessary COVID-19 testing and treatment services, including vaccination and hospitalization, at no cost to patients.

The Medi-Cal program is set to end on May 11, according to Bonta.

“Hospitals and health care providers should be held accountable when they engage in predatory billing practices that take advantage of vulnerable communities, especially those who already face financial, language, and geographic barriers to accessing health care,” said Clarisa Reyes-Becerra, director of CRLAF’s immigrant health equity project.

According to Bonta, the investigation into the hospital also found problems with its publication of policies on financial aid, discounted payments and charity care options required under the law. As a result, San Joaquin General Hospital will add notices of patient rights to six locations across its facilities.

Katy St. Clair, Bay City News

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.