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The sensible and the difficult

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We may see soon where excellent intentions and well-crafted proposals run up against the wall of Idaho politics. Or will those intentions this time blast through it?

The story leading up to this began in mid-April, when the on-line East Idaho News published a series of articles on collection of medical debt in the area, under headlines such as “Medical debt nightmare: Why a local woman could end up paying over $5,550 for her $294 doctor’s visit” and “Medical debt, collections and the fees you’ve probably never heard of.” The stories were detailed and apparently well reported and, while not especially surprising to many people who have been snagged in the medical debt system, they may have shocked a number of people less familiar with the situation.

The report wasn’t wholly negative; some people reported good experiences in working with collectors structuring payments on what they owed. The articles focused on a local company called Medical Recovery Services, which it said differed from many of its counterparts in its approach to supplemental attorneys’ fees. These are fees beyond basic court costs which the debtor often already is on the hook for. One article noted, “Once the debt and prejudgment fees are paid off, you may think that would be the end of it, but that’s not always the case. Idaho Code 12-120 allows attorneys to continue seeking post-judgment or supplemental attorney fees to pay for continued efforts by attorneys to pursue a debt. And these requested fees are typically much higher than prejudgment fees.” And the can mean the costs of appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court.

The articles got the attention of Frank VanderSloot, chief executive of Melaleuca at Idaho Falls and reported to be the wealthiest man in Idaho. One reported case involved a Melaleuca employee who owed a medical debt of $294 but then – after MRS got into the case – was socked with $5,864.25 in legal fees.

After the articles ran, VanderSloot wrote in an open letter that he and his wife, “decided that we simply cannot stand by and allow our neighbors to go through the kind of financial duress and emotional pain that is apparently being perpetrated by MRS.” He backed that up with $500,000 toward a defense fund aimed at helping the medically indebted. Costs in this area being what they are, that money burned through quickly, and VanderSloot recently added another $500,000 to the cause.

That’s been a fine public service and no doubt has helped quite a few people. But VanderSloot also evidently recognized that one person’s (even one wealthy person’s) contribution isn’t enough to solve the problem. So this month, at a gathering of well-connected Eastern Idaho leaders (including a large share of the Idaho Legislature), VanderSloot said he was backing legislation to change medical debt collection law in Idaho.

The measure would, the Idaho Falls Post Register reported, “put limits on attorneys’ fees in medical debt cases; to require health care providers to send out bills and notify patients of services rendered within 30 days; and to require, within another 30 days after that, that a hospital or other health care facility send a patient a consolidated notice containing the names and contact information of all health care providers that are billing them.”

It reads like an injection of simple fairness into the system.

But then VanderSloot said: “I can’t imagine very much objection to this, given every single family is affected by this one way or the other.” Though he’s of course right about the given, objections likely will be there nonetheless. This is the kind of consumer regulation action that for years has had a hard time gaining traction in the Idaho Legislature.

And that’s not all. MRS is tightly associated with and represented by the law firm, Smith, Driscoll & Associates; the top name partner is Bryan Smith, a former candidate for Congress who has been deeply active in the upper reaches of Idaho Republican politics. One of the attorneys in that firm, and MRS’ registered agent, is Bryan Zollinger, a state representative. MRS, in other words, is pretty well connected too.

Remember: The income streams of a number of people are at stake here. What looks like sensible and humane reform to many (likely most) people will look like a threat to others.

VanderSloot may prevail at the Statehouse. But when he arrives he should be ready for a battle, because he’ll likely get one.
 

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