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A Washington state law firm has accused one of the region’s largest health care providers and a California collections agency of conspiring to defraud Pierce County accident victims by using liens to increase money recouped for providing medical treatment. The firm of Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala last week sued Tacoma-based MultiCare Health System and Hunter Donaldson of Brea, Calif. Hunter Donaldson employees Rebecca Rohlke and Ralph Wadsworth also are named as defendants. The News Tribune story says that the suit was filed on behalf of five Pierce County residents who contend they suffered monetary losses as a result of the alleged fraud. The five, Velma Walker, James Stutz, Karl Walthall, Gina Cichon and Melanie Smallwood, seek unspecified damages.

The law firm, which has offices in Seattle and Tacoma, said in a statement that there potentially are thousands of other victims and that it will seek to have the lawsuit certified as a class action.”MultiCare has a lot of explaining to do,” plaintiff’s attorney Darrell Cochran said this week. “This hospital group touts itself as a consumer award winner, all the while they are violating the most basic consumer rights we have.”

MultiCare, which operates Tacoma General Hospital and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Center, among other facilities, issued a statement Wednesday through spokeswoman Marce Edwards. “MultiCare Health System takes these allegations very seriously,” the statement reads. “We have commenced an investigation into the specific allegations that are listed in this complaint. Until we know all of the facts and have fully investigated the concerns raised, MultiCare has temporarily suspended the enforcement of all medical liens issued on its behalf by Hunter Donaldson. We will meet with representatives from Hunter Donaldson as soon as possible.”

The dispute is over a section of Washington law that allows some medical providers, including doctors and hospitals, to place a lien against money an accident victim might get from successfully suing or settling with the person responsible for his or her injuries. The purpose of the lien is to ensure that the medical providers would be paid for services rendered. The plaintiffs allege that MultiCare and Hunter Donaldson, which MultiCare hired to manage its third-party collections, conspired to use the law to unfairly enrich themselves.

MultiCare stands to gain more money by using liens to recoup its costs from money its patients obtain through a lawsuit or settlement than it does from billing insurance, Cochran said. Such practices often leave accident victims with no money once they pay their medical bills, even if they gained cash for pain and suffering and other costs, he said. “Injured accident victims who go to MultiCare’s hospitals and clinics are being kept in the dark about MultiCare’s intentions to never bill their insurance but instead to try to get more money from the injured victims’ later recovery,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Tom Gallagher.