CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - Medic patients could soon see their wages or bank accounts seized to pay for overdue bills — plus extra fees, the county announced Tuesday. That immediately stirred activist concerns that minorities and the poor would be the ones who would be hurt the most by this move.
Bills for Medic, the Mecklenburg Emergency Medical Services Agency, that are more than 120 days overdue will be turned over to the Mecklenburg County Tax Collector’s Office starting Oct. 1, the county said in a statement. That means those overdue bills can be collected using “advanced tax collection methods, including garnishment,” the county said.
This approach is new for Mecklenburg County, county spokesman Leo Caplanides said.
Delinquent debts previously were sent to a private collection agency after 120 days, Medic spokeswoman Grace Nelson said. Officials are changing collection methods because the system loses so much money on unpaid bills, she said.
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 over 120 days past due, totaling $2.2 million. That’s an average of about $821 per claim.
People covered by Medicaid, worker’s compensation hospice or who qualify for charity write-offs will not be referred to the tax collector’s office, Caplanides said.
But Charlotte NAACP President Corine Mack said the new practice will disproportionately hurt black and brown poor people.
“If you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it,” Mack said. “There’s a reason why you haven’t paid your bills.”
She said taking a hard stance on overdue bills will hurt people in Charlotte working more than one job, and who are already choosing between paying for necessities like food, clothes and gas.
“Historically and continuously, black and brown women and their families are being harmed,” Mack said.
The Rev. Willie Keaton, a local activist for the poor and pastor for Mount Olive Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, said the change could have dangerous consequences for the poor and elderly. Some people might be less likely to call for help if they are worried about the cost, Keaton said.
“People might have early signs of stroke and say ‘Let me try to sleep on this,’ ” Keaton said. “That doesn’t sound like governing with the constituents in mind. There are so many questions about this.”
FEES AND SERVICES
Under a contract with Mecklenburg County, Atrium Health and Novant Health, the region’s two dominant healthcare providers, operate Medic. User fees cover most of the service’s $66 million annual budget. Mecklenburg County taxpayers provide about $11 million annually.
The county once ran the ambulance service. Authorities created the current system in the 1990s after a series of Observer reports detailed how staff shortages, unnecessary calls and uncollected bills contributed to life-threatening ambulance delays.
Nelson said other states and municipalities have long referred delinquent bills to tax collectors.
Asked about how the change could impact the poor, Nelson said Medic discounts bills for patients who qualify for “charity write-offs.” In some cases, Nelson said, the entire bill is canceled.
Billing rates 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.
Nelson said Medic allows patients to make payment arrangements when they cannot pay their bill in full, Nelson said.
“As a steward of county tax dollars, Medic fully supports this strategy to help ensure rate increases or reliance on county tax dollars can be minimized,” Nelson said in a statement.
’IT CAN BE EXPENSIVE’
Under North Carolina law, bank deposits, rent, salary, wages, or other intangible property can be seized to pay for outstanding tax debt. The county tax collector also charges $30 per garnishment.
A few types of funds can’t be garnished by law, including Social Security benefits, federal military veteran’s benefits, unemployment benefits, 401(k) savings plans, N.C. state and public assistance payments, and N.C. workers’ compensation, according to the Office of the Tax Collector.
In the event of a garnishment, a 10-day freeze is placed on a debtor’s bank account, according to the tax collector office. The bank will evaluate funds, send eligible funds to the tax office and lift the freeze.
The tax office can also send the garnishment to an employer, according to the Office of the Tax Collector’s frequently asked questions site. In that case, employers must send 10% of the employees gross wages — before taxes — to the tax collector per pay period until the claim is fully paid.
County Commissioner Pat Cotham said the board approved new tax collector jobs in the fiscal 2020 budget for the change.
“When people owe you money, you can’t just ignore it,” Cotham said. But she said many people simply can’t afford an ambulance ride, or to pay those bills.
“Sometimes it’s a couple thousand dollars,” Cotham said. “It can be expensive. And that can be devastating to a lot of people — most people.”