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North Carolina Special Election Today; House Oversight Investigating Trump's Actions on Russia Sanctions; Hospitals Suing Over Outstanding Medical Bills. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired September 10, 2019 - 10:30   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Ten months after accusations of voter fraud voided the results of a midterm last year, today, voters in North Carolina's 9th District head to the polls once again.

This is a special do-over election, if you will. It's more than a U.S. House seat on the line, though. Some see the outcome of today's race between Republican Dan Bishop and Democrat Dan McCready as a referendum on the Trump presidency and his 2020 re-election bid.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: In fact, the stakes are so high that the president and vice president visited North Carolina last night for a campaign rally. Joining us now to discuss, managing editor of "The Charlotte Observer," Taylor Batten.

And, Taylor, for folks at home who might forget this, this race was voided. First of all, it was tight in 2018, Democrat lost by less than a thousand votes. But it was discovered that the local GOP had committed election fraud, criminal election fraud to advantage the Republican candidate. I'm curious, is that factoring into this race as you're covering it there?

TAYLOR BATTEN, MANAGING EDITOR, THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER: Yes, sure is. I mean, that was one of the factors that tilted this race to be more competitive than it might have otherwise been. You know, after the scandal of the -- it was really a flimflam of an election in 2018, voting scandals and the democrat, Dan McCready, who's now running again, lost by 905 votes.

But there's kind of been a little bit of a stain from that whole episode on the Republican Party, and they've had to overcome that in this race.

HARLOW: All right. So when you look at history, here, a Democrat hasn't won this district since 1963, the president won it by 12 points. What -- but -- you know, but this one's so close. I mean, what are the odds that a Democrat retakes this seat? And what does it tell you, even if a Democrat comes close, about where the political winds are shifting?


BATTEN: Yes. The reason the rest of the country ought to be interested in this race is because it is absolutely a referendum on President Trump. And a potential harbinger of what's coming in 2020.

This was a -- as you said, this was a district that Trump carried very easily in 2016, by 12 points. And now, the Republican, Dan Bishop, is in a heck of a fight with Dan McCready. All the inside polls, we're told, private polls, suggest that it's an extremely close race.

The other thing about it is that this district is partly urban, partly suburban, exurban and rural. It's got all of it, it does across North Carolina. And so it is going to really test whether those suburban voters that went pretty heavily for Trump in certain parts of the country in 2016, how they're feeling now.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And we saw in 2018, the midterms, that particularly suburban women tended to turn a lot of those swing districts blue from red. Final question, just before we go. The economy, such a key factor as we approach 2020. And I'm just curious, on the ground there, in that district where you are, what are the feelings about the direction of the economy? And how might that influence the voting?

BATTEN: Well, that probably differs in different parts of the district. You know, the far western end of the district is here in Charlotte, where the economy is booming, there -- our downtown is dotted with cranes everywhere you look. As you go eastward, out into the rural parts of the district, you know, the economy is still strong, but not like it is here. And so yes, if there's any unease about that, that would affect how this race plays out.

HARLOW: Well, we'll know tomorrow morning. You'll have a busy night --

SCIUTTO: We'll know tonight.

HARLOW: -- a long night. Yes, we'll know tonight. There you go.

SCIUTTO: Unless it's really close --

HARLOW: Well, I go to bed kind of early.

SCIUTTO: -- unless it's really close --

HARLOW: That's true.

SCIUTTO: -- it could go long, yes.

HARLOW: I go to bed early. Jim's like a night owl, he'll know tonight. I'll know in the morning.

Taylor Batten, thank you so much. We'll see you soon.

BATTEN: Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. So a new question this morning from the Oversight Committee. Did the White House drag its feet when imposing those sanctions on Russia? Coming up, the House Oversight Committee has some major questions on that front for the Trump administration.



HARLOW: House Democrats are pressing the Trump administration this morning on their decision to delay, for months, the implementation of these sanctions on Russia.

SCIUTTO: It's been part of a consistent picture here. Members of the House Oversight Subcommittee want to know why it took that time to impose those sanctions, this on Russia for the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom.

CNN's Kylie Atwood joins us now. Kylie, what more are we learning here about this delay?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: That's right. So it took nine months from the time that the State Department said that this action by the Russians, when they poisoned an ex-Russian spy and his daughter on U.K. soil, were not legally acceptable by the U.S. It took nine months for the U.S. to actually put sanctions on Russia.

So that's why this committee is asking questions of the State Department. Why did it take so long? And they want some answers to some very specific questions: Who are the folks that made these recommendations to the White House? What did the recommendations say? And who signed off on these sanctions?

Because according to this letter from the House Oversight Subcommittee chairman, what actually went into action here was insufficient according to U.S. government officials who had looked at these sanctions in the past.

So they also want a transcript, actually, of President Trump and President Vladimir Putin, when they spoke over the phone in July, really getting down to the nitty-gritty of how these sanctions came to fruition.

I want to read you a quote from the letter, from the House Oversight Subcommittee chairman, saying, quote, "Your department has claimed on multiple occasions that 'we condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, under any circumstance.' These words ring hollow if they are not enforced through timely, meaningful sanctions and remedial action."

So, clearly, they're asking for some very specific questions and a State Department official is telling us that after they received these two letters in August, it's taken them a while to get the answers but they're expected to give the answers to the committee today.

SCIUTTO: Kylie Atwood, thanks so much for that important reporting.

[10:44:01] Still ahead this hour, people -- as people across the U.S. struggle to pay medical costs, a CNN investigation shows that one hospital in New Mexico is suing thousands of patients to collect debt. Many of them say it's devastated them financially. We're going to have their stories, next.


HARLOW: I think it's fair to say, medical debt is a crisis in this country --


HARLOW: -- right now. Two out of every three bankruptcies in the U.S. right now are tied to medical issues and the debt from hospital stays, doctors' visits, et cetera. This is according to a study published this year in the American Journal of Public Health.

SCIUTTO: That debt can sometimes be crushing. Sometimes hospitals end up going after patients who don't pay, by hounding them with collections calls. CNN's senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen went to New Mexico and visited a hospital that's going even farther.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the Pecos River winds its way through the desert and the valley, stunning and remote. Some restaurants and shops and one hospital, Carlsbad Medical Center.

COHEN: When you have an emergency in Carlsbad, New Mexico -- heart attack, a broken bone -- is there any choice about where you go?



COHEN: How many hospitals are in town?



COHEN (voice-over): Patients here are at its mercy, forced to pay whatever it charges. Patients like Donna Hernandez, who manages a local hotel here.


Last year, when she had the flu and went to the emergency room, she received a bill for $6,000.

DONNA HERNANDEZ, CARLSBAD MEDICAL CENTER PATIENT: And it was $6,000, two and a half hours in that hospital.

COHEN: What did you think when you got a $6,000 bill for two hours of care?

HERNANDEZ: I was shocked.

COHEN (voice-over): And when patients like Donna can't pay, the hospital will sometimes sue them to collect the money.

A CNN investigation of court records shows that in the past 10 years, Carlsbad Medical Center has sued more than 3,000 people to collect debts. Everyone here -- Donna, Victoria Pina, Misty (ph) Price and her husband, A.J. Price -- have all been sued by the hospital.

Sometimes, as part of the lawsuit, Carlsbad Medical Center takes money right out of their paychecks. It happened to Victoria, a teacher's aide.

VICTORIA PINA, CARLSBAD MEDICAL CENTER PATIENT: Like, why would -- why would the hospital do that? You know, you're not just hurting me or making me pay. You're hurting my husband and my kids and our livelihood.

COHEN: So how many of you have either had your wages garnished or are about to have your wages garnished? Everybody. So they go right into your paycheck --



COHEN: -- and take out the money?



A.J. PRICE, CARLSBAD MEDICAL CENTER PATIENT: They go straight to your H.R. department.

M. PRICE: You can't do anything about it.

COHEN (voice-over): Misty was a single mom when she was sued, raising three kids. She saved stacks of bills and legal papers from her fight with the hospital.

M. PRICE: I had a car repossessed. I almost lost my house. I didn't know how I was going to -- you know, support my kids. I mean, it makes you not want to get medical care because, I mean, they're going to come after you.

And I have insurance. I've had insurance the entire time.

COHEN: You were working at the time?

M. PRICE: Three jobs.

COHEN (voice-over): Carlsbad Medical Center says it sues as a last resort. In a statement, the hospital CEO told us, "We sue less than 1 percent of the patients who receive care at our hospital... Before initiating a collection suit against anyone, we make multiple attempts -- usually trying to contact our patients 10 to 12 times -- to offer manageable payment plans and additional discounts off of already discounted charges. In many cases, patients do not respond to our calls or letters."

Most other hospitals in the area make a different choice. Artesia General Hospital, Nor-Lea General Hospital and Lincoln County Medical Center? Over the past 10 years, none of them have sued patients for debt collection.

It's not known how many hospitals in the U.S. garnish patients' wages like Carlsbad Medical Center does. A study in one state, Virginia, found that in 2017, 36 percent of hospitals garnished wages.

Dr. Marty Makary, a physician at Johns Hopkins University, is one of the study authors.

COHEN: Tell me about Carlsbad, New Mexico.

MARTY MAKARY, PHYSICIAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: This is a wonderful small town of about 28,000, kind of your classic Americana town.

COHEN (voice-over): In his new book, "The Price We Pay," he has a whole chapter on Carlsbad Medical Center.

COHEN: So we met Misty (ph) Price. She's been sued and had her wages garnished. Her husband was sued, her sister was sued, her sister's husband was sued, her best friend was sued and her best friend's husband was sued.

MAKARY: That's a disgrace. How does one local community hospital create all this terror and financial hardship to so many people?

We talked to a lot of people whose lives have really been ruined financially.

COHEN: But some people might say, "Look, they incurred the bills, they need to pay their bills."

MAKARY: Look, doctors and hospitals should be paid fairly, I firmly believe that. But oftentimes, these patients are being shaken down with the most aggressive and predatory practices we've ever seen in the history of medicine.

COHEN (voice-over): In a statement, Carlsbad Medical Center's CEO told us, "Absolutely no patient pays the full price of our services. We provide charity care for anyone who qualifies... [For] those who struggle to pay their hospital bills, we offer additional discounts and reasonable extremely low payment plans."

Donna, who's uninsured, eventually got one of those discounts. Her bill was cut in half, to a little over $3,000. Still, steep, she says, for a simple visit for the flu. HERNANDEZ: It makes me mad. It angers me, that you would take

advantage of people that are in a situation where they need medical care.

COHEN: Do you feel like Carlsbad Medical Center is taking advantage of the fact that they're the only game in town?

M. PRICE: Big-time.

PINA: Yes.

A. PRICE: Oh, definitely. They are going to get every case, every injury, every accident is going to come right here. And I think they prey on that.

COHEN (voice-over): After being contacted by CNN, the hospital told us it has a new policy. They'll stop suing patients whose income is below a certain level. For example, if a patient is single, the hospital won't sue if they earn less than about $19,000.

But for many other patients, the lawsuits will continue, leaving them here, at the Eddy County Courthouse.

COHEN: This hospital has a big law firm working for it. Do you have lawyers working for you?





COHEN: Could you afford to hire lawyers to work for you?

PINA (?): No.



COHEN (voice-over): Without legal help, patients often lose these lawsuits from Carlsbad Medical Center, putting them in good company with so many others living in this valley.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Carlsbad, New Mexico.


HARLOW: Wow. Important reporting, Elizabeth --

SCIUTTO: No question.

HARLOW: -- thank you very, very much. Still to come, a new poll this morning shows the president's approval

numbers are dropping as a majority of Americans now say they think a recession is likely in the next year. Stay with us.