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County delays Medic billing crackdown after activists say ‘people will die’

Two weeks after Mecklenburg County announced it would go after patients’ wages and bank accounts to pay for overdue ambulance bills, disability rights advocates say they’re worried the change will cost lives.

Mecklenburg County announced Sept. 17 that bills for Medic, the Mecklenburg Emergency Medical Services Agency, that are more than 120 days overdue will be sent to the Mecklenburg County Tax Collector’s Office starting in October.

The Tax Collector’s Office has the ability to use “advanced tax collection methods, including garnishment,” the county said at the time.

That means the county could seize wages or bank deposits directly from patients’ banks or employers to pay overdue bills.

But county commissioners have asked for more time to consider the issue after disability rights advocates spoke out against the change at the Mecklenburg County Commissioners meeting Tuesday night.

The overdue bills scheduled to go to the tax collector’s office Friday will be delayed until county staff present alternative proposals, County Manager Dena Diorio confirmed Wednesday.

“People will die from this,” activist Stephy Hamrick told the Observer before the Tuesday meeting.

Hamrick said the change will directly hurt people with disabilities, seniors and poor people.

“People are angry,” she said. “People are hurting, and people are scared. We need to know that our community has not sold us out.”

Tera Long called on commissioners to be the “moral compass” of Mecklenburg County.

“We don’t think about money when we call the fire or the police department,” Long said. “Why should we when we’re sick?”

Long, and others who spoke against the bill collection change, said the solution to the debt problem is enacting a Medicare for All-style system at the federal level.

County Commissioner Trevor Fuller said he agrees that medical debt should be a federal issue. He said medical care needs to be affordable.

“If you don’t have the ability to exercise the right, you don’t have it,” Fuller said.

He worries that concern over Medic billing changes will lead people to avoid calling 911.

“When they have a medical emergency, they shouldn’t have to think twice about calling Medic,” Fuller said.

Hamrick said she has already seen people write “do not call 911” on their medical directives and medical bracelets.

“We’re already in a poverty crisis in this city,” she told the Observer Tuesday. “This in unacceptable. It’s just taking money used to keep a roof overhead and food on the table.”

Finding ‘creative solutions’

Medic has 35,177 accounts that are past due, according to the county, for people who owe a total of $28.7 million.

And of those claims, 2,678 are more than 120 days past due, totaling $2.2 million. That’s an average of about $821 per claim.

Tax collector Neal Dixon said the first bill filing from Medic is expected to be turned over to the tax collector’s office Friday. But commissioners were still split on the policy.

Diorio said commissioners did not take an official vote on the policy earlier in the year, but they did approve adding four jobs to the tax collector’s office to administer the policy during budget talks.

Board Chairman George Dunlap said he wants more information on the policy, including exactly how much money Medic needs to recoup.

“I don’t want to rush this,” he said. “It needs to be addressed.”

Dunlap asked county staff to work with Medic to find “creative solutions” for the debt resolution. County commissioners didn’t give a timeline for a decision.

Some people would be exempt from the tax collector’s office methods. People covered by Medicaid, worker’s compensation, in hospice care or who qualify for charity write-offs or receive VA benefits will not be referred to the tax collector’s office, Dixon said.

Medic wrote off $5.1 million in charity care in fiscal year 2019, Medic executive director Joe Penner said.

But Hamrick said fear of medical costs and wage garnishment will prevent people from calling 911, even if they need help.

Bills typically range from roughly $1,050 to $1,270 for ambulance service, according to Medic’s website. Costs can vary depending on the severity of the patient’s condition.

“It is deeply and profoundly unfair that a person’s survival should depend on what they have in the bank,” Hamrick said. “And a government that works for us should not be making that worse.”

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Hannah Smoot covers business in Charlotte, focusing on aviation and health care. She previously covered money and power at The Rock Hill Herald in South Carolina. She is a lifelong North Carolinian and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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