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Law targets those with unpaid bills at some medical providers

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GREENVILLE, N.C. - Unpaid medical bills cost area hospitals and providers millions of dollars every year. A bill that passed the initial vote in the State House last week aims to cut some of those loses.

It's called the State Offset Debt Collection Act (SODCA) and it enables state agencies to collect unpaid bills by taking all, or a portion of, the patient's state tax refunds or lottery winnings.

ECU's Brody School of Medicine used to be able to collect unpaid bills in this method, but that was revoked last year by the House, costing the school more than $6 million. The vote last week would give the medical schools at ECU and UNC the right to collect unpaid bills through state tax refunds and lottery winnings once again.

"The group of folks that we're talking about typically have insurance and it's the co-pay and the deductible that they are supposed to pay that they're not paying," said Nicholas Benson, the Vice Dean of the Brody School of Medicine.

He says the news comes at a critical moment in the school's history as they face challenging problems, including being $20 million in debt.

"With the changes in health care reimbursement that is going on nationally, it is inevitable what we're able to do here at Brody and at ECU Physicians is going to change," Benson said.

Before the school can take money from a patient's state tax refund or lottery winnings, they have to go through several steps.

First, they have to give the patient 90 days to pay the bill. After that, the school must offer the patient alternative ways of paying, such as stretching the payment over several months.

If after that a payment isn't received, the school would send the bill to a collection agency.

If all of those steps failed, the school would then be able to send the bill to the North Carolina Department of Revenue, who validates the charges and can take a portion, or all of, the patient's state tax refund and lottery winnings.

Keith Allison says he think the bill is a good idea.

"The rest of society that also has debts like that are obligated to pay them. It's only appropriate that it comes out of your tax refund in that situation," Allison said.

Beadie Beasley doesn't think the state should have the right to take an individual's tax refund.

"Individual situations can be overlooked and it can be taken from your falsely," Beasley said.

School officials say it's becoming more of a challenge to balance their budget without laying off any of their 375 physicians or making changes to the services they offer.

Benson says this would help the school in several ways.

"It not only helps us with patient care, it also helps us with the education of the medical students here so that we can produce more doctors for North Carolina," Benson said.

This law only applies to state agencies, which doesn't include hospitals like Vidant because it is private.
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