Prominent doctors at the University of Virginia Health System are expressing public outrage at their employer’s practices to collect unpaid medical debt from its patients.

A Kaiser Health News report in September showed that U-Va. sued 36,000 patients over six years for more than $100 million, seizing wages and savings and even pushing families into bankruptcy.

Like many physicians who work at U.S. medical centers, the U-Va. doctors said they had little idea how aggressively the hospital where they practice was billing and pursuing their patients for payment.

Although the health system has announced some interim measures to scale back collections practices, some of the system’s most senior physicians are now calling for U-Va. to stop suing its patients altogether. And they are urging the pursuit of an “immediate solution” to address the national epidemic of health-care debt.

“We were appalled by the revelations of the aggressive, pitiless billing and collections practices” at U-Va., physician Scott Heysell and two other senior doctors wrote in a letter to KHN published Saturday. “We felt betrayed,” they wrote, “and we had, by extension, betrayed those who had relied on us.”

Heysell, an infectious-disease specialist and associate professor at U-Va. School of Medicine, and his co-authors echoed other U-Va. researchers and clinicians contacted by a reporter who said they were surprised and dismayed by the health system’s practices.

U-Va. initially defended its practices, pointing to the Virginia Debt Collection Act of 1988, which requires state agencies to “aggressively collect” money owed. But within days of the KHN report, U-Va. said it would reduce its use of the courts and make it easier for patients to qualify for financial assistance.

That’s not enough, said the letter’s authors, who include Rebecca Dillingham, director of U-Va.’s Center for Global Health, and Michael Williams, director of the U-Va. Center for Health Policy.

They ask “why UVA cannot join other public hospitals that have effectively stopped suing patients altogether.”

Other faculty said the system’s practices undermined their efforts to improve care for middle- and lower-income families and was not in keeping with an ethos of putting patients first.

KHN’s findings “made me feel utterly hypocritical about my work and efforts to promote health equity,” Rajesh Balkrishnan, a U-Va. public health professor who researches cancer treatment in Appalachia, said in an interview.

“This is a public university with one of the richest endowments in the country,” he said. “At least take care of the immediate community you serve.”

“We are continuing to thoughtfully review our billing and collection practices to find additional ways to better serve our patients as well as improve fairness and transparency,” said U-Va. Health spokesman Eric Swensen. “We are looking at all options to achieve these goals.”

In September, U-Va. Health said it would “reduce our reliance on the legal system,” suing patients only if their household income is over 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or $103,000 for a family of four. It also pledged to increase discounts for the uninsured and upgrade its financial assistance for patients.

Those measures are “a first step,” it said. On Oct. 28, it named an advisory council of community leaders, patient advocates, and U-Va. students and staff to consider further changes.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who oversees the state’s university system and public hospitals, is a pediatric neurologist.

“As a doctor himself, Gov. Northam agrees with the doctors who have taken a stand against unfair and aggressive medical billing practices,” his spokeswoman said. “Much more can and should be done to address this issue.”

KHN’s report prompted discussions across the campus in Charlottesville about how to treat uninsured patients or those with coverage who still struggle with thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses, doctors and faculty said.

“No physician wants to be responsible for bankrupting a patient — not one physician, not one patient,” said Mohan Nadkarni, U-Va.’s chief of general internal medicine. He is the only physician on the advisory council.

“U-Va. physicians were completely taken aback by the scale and magnitude of the collections practices,” Nadkarni said. Discussion at the council’s first meeting reflected “lots of pent-up dissatisfaction from community leaders” about U-Va.’s practices, he said.

But many knew the health system was suing patients, they said. Some had firsthand experience with aggressive tactics from the billing office.

At one “town meeting” of health system employees, held at U-Va.’s Leonard Sandridge Auditorium in response to KHN’s report, somebody took the mic and asked, “Who in this room has been taken to collections by U-Va.?” said Matthew Gillikin, a speech therapist who was there. A quarter to one-third of the people raised their hands, he said.

Court data analyzed by KHN showed that U-Va. Health was suing about 100 of its employees every year.

Also at the town meetings, “we heard many agonizing stories of patients and employees having been sued or having wages garnished,” Nadkarni said. “We heard loud and clear from many physicians that they heavily supported significant liberalization” of U-Va. Health’s financial assistance policies.

Family physician Alex Salomon, who worked at U-Va. for seven years and now is with Augusta Health in Fishersville, Va., had “a lot of patients” with U-Va. billing and lawsuit problems, many who had insurance but could not make out-of-pocket payments, he said. Still, he added, “I didn’t realize U-Va. was so much worse” than other hospitals.

As part of the University of Virginia, U-Va. Health is a state institution that is not subject to taxation. U-Va. Medical Center, the system’s flagship hospital, made a $91 million operating profit on revenue of $1.8 billion in the fiscal year ending in June and held stocks, bonds and other investments worth about $1 billion, according to financial statements.

Doctors are realizing that financial barriers to treatment and budget squeezes from bills can be as harmful to patients as disease, said Marty Makary, a surgeon and researcher at Johns Hopkins Medicine who studies hospital debt collection and is urging U-Va. alumni to press for further change.

“I have not talked to a single patient or student of U-Va., or faculty member or alumni, who thinks it is reasonable for the hospital to sue patients who cannot afford their bill,” he said.

News of U-Va. collections practices served as a teaching moment for at least one class.

“Many of the students in my class work for the UVA Health System, so the recent media coverage about UVA’s billing practices has been painful for them as nurses who care deeply about the patients and families they serve,” Kimberly Acquaviva, a professor of health policy at U-Va.’s nursing school, tweeted in September. “As a class, we talked about the power that nurses have to shape the lives of the patients and families” by advocating for system change, she said.

She declined a request for an interview, as did five other doctors or professors. Several referred a reporter to Swensen. About 20 others did not respond to interview requests.

Chris Ghaemmaghami, an emergency and internal medicine doctor, became U-Va. Health’s acting CEO after Pamela Sutton-Wallace announced her resignation in September. Her departure was unrelated to KHN’s revelations, U-Va. said at the time.

“I understand the disappointment some fellow physicians felt when our historic billing and collection practices came to light,” he said in an email responding to questions from KHN.

Heysell, Williams and Dillingham, who wrote the letter, go further.

“To be clear, we are outraged,” they wrote. “We stand with those that have been financially injured, whose bank accounts have been looted, whose homes have been swallowed as if they were built on quicksand, whose credit scores were ruined and whose mental health and energy were spent in a courtroom or in anxious conversations with lawyers — all as a result of having sought our care.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.