What Is a Hospital Lien?

Simply put, a “hospital lien” refers to a claim that a medical provider has against a patient’s own claim for injuries that the medical provider treated.

Imagine you are in a car accident caused by a drunken driver’s speeding and swerving. You suffer broken bones and internal bleeding. An ambulance takes you to a nearby hospital, where those injuries are treated. You file a claim against the drunk driver or and/or his insurer. The hospital can then file a lien against your claim for the cost of treating your injuries. Essentially, the hospital lien makes sure the hospital gets reimbursed for the cost of treating your injuries when and if you recover compensation for those injuries.

Why Would the Hospital File a Lien?

It’s complicated. In modern life, there are any number of people and organizations that might be responsible for paying that medical bill in the example above: you, the insurance company that provides you with medical insurance, your own vehicle insurer if you have medical payments coverage, Medicare or Medicaid if you’re on one of those programs, and the person who caused your injuries, like the drunk driver or even someone else who is responsible for letting a drunk driver use a car.

The hospital could file the lien simply to protect its financial interests until the law can sort out who is going to ultimately pay you. Or the hospital could file the lien for a less honorable reason: to get more money for the treatment it provided you.

Most medical insurers have agreements with medical providers, including hospitals, that limit how much they will pay for various medical services. If the hospital submits the bill to your medical insurer, it’s only going to collect that amount. But if it places a lien on your claim against the drunk driver and you collect significant damages from the driver and/or his insurance company, the hospital can collect the full amount of its bill out of the money you got.

How Can You Defend Against a Hospital Lien?

The hospital lien is authorized by statute. In Georgia, that statute specifically describes who can file a lien (it’s not just hospitals; most medical providers can file one). It also specifies how the lien has to be filed, restricts the lien to reasonable charges for the treatment and to charges for treatment of injuries that are part of the cause of action on which the lien is placed.

So, the main defenses to a hospital lien are:

This won’t come up often, but sometimes there’s also a real question whether the injuries that are covered by the claim on which the medical provider has placed a lien simply are the same injuries that the provider treated. The defense that they are not is most likely to come up when the treatment covered by the lien occurs some time after the accident that gave rise to the claim on which the lien has been placed.

What the Medical Lien Is Not

The lien isn’t against the patient personally, only against the claim the patient has against the person who caused the injury. If you end up not recovering, the lien is useless.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that the lien isn’t the hospital’s only way to recover its costs. Even if you fail to win your claim against the person who injured you, the hospital has a right to be paid, either by you or by someone responsible for your medical care (a medical insurer, Medicare, etc.).