When medical debt attacks…

If you want to know more about the financial consequences of being uninsured, read yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article by Sara Rubenstein.

In a move that consumer groups say could increase pressure on people with unpaid medical bills, some hospitals are trying out a new tactic to recoup patients’ debts: They’re auctioning the debt online.

Hospitals have long relied on outside collection agencies to go after debtors. Under traditional arrangements, these agencies receive a percentage of any money they get from a debtor; the more they collect, the more they earn.

Now, some of the same collection agencies, as well as other firms that purchase debt outright, have begun participating as bidders in online auctions, in which they buy the debt or provide guaranteed payments to hospitals for access to the unpaid accounts. Some experts say this gives them more reason to aggressively pursue patients in arrears. Auctions can drive up the amount paid for debt, meaning a collector must recoup more money from patients to cover its initial investment and turn a profit. And the winning bidders often get to keep all the money they collect on the auctioned debt.

Health Access California has talked to lots of Californians with medical debt, as we worked to pass AB774(Chan), to prevent hospitals from overcharging the uninsured. Invariably, the experience of these patients in dealing with the bill was worse after the bill was referred to collections, and much worse after the debt was sold. That’s why AB774 included a moratorium on patients being sent to collections. There are other existing consumer protections against aggressive collections practices, but is it enough?

Winning bidders may “have to work harder” to make a profit from auctioned debt, says Michael Klozotsky, an analyst at Kaulkin Ginsberg Co., a collections-industry strategic-advice company. “Working harder means sometimes using strategies that are more aggressive.

“Many of the auctions of hospital debt have been done through Web site ARxChange.com1 — shorthand for “accounts receivable exchange” — owned by TriCap Technology Group. Another site is medipent.com2, run by Medipent LLC. The auction-site owners, both small companies based in New York, say their systems create safeguards that protect patients from potential abuse. Collection firms are vetted for their tactics and approach to patient needs and concerns before they are allowed to participate in auctions, the site owners say. The site owners also try to ensure that collectors comply with hospital rules — whether they must record phone calls, for instance, or get the hospital’s permission before initiating a lawsuit against a patient. Hospitals have final say over who bids on their accounts, and, on ARxChange.com, don’t necessarily award the contract to the highest bidder.

Consumer advocates say patients are less likely to successfully dispute bills or negotiate them downward if they are dealing with a third-party collector rather than a hospital directly. Collectors also are further removed from hospitals’ financial-assistance policies.”The hospital is an institution in the community, has a reputation, in many cases has a nonprofit mission to uphold,” says Anthony Wright, executive director of the consumer-advocacy coalition Health Access California. “Once it goes to collections, that starts a process that can get a lot more antagonistic, a lot more aggressive, and a lot more damaging to a family’s credit history and financial future.”

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and some state laws govern how debt collectors can treat consumers. For instance, debt collectors aren’t allowed to harass consumers or make false statements, including implying they will sue if they don’t intend to do so. Consumer groups say calling the medical provider or your insurer could help clarify any confusion about what you owe. The hospital also could provide information about financial assistance or charity-care.

A hospital bill is typically the biggest bill a person gets in their entire life. The first goal is to prevent these situations from happening in the first place: to make sure people are covered, or have other financial options that can help pay the bill. But in any case, patients with medical debt should have basic consumer protections. We don’t want people to not go to the hospital for fear of the bill, or those who come to collect it.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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