The North Carolina Senate Health Care Committee held a discussion Wednesday on a bill that would help those affected by medical debt, and members are hoping that the second time is the charm.

S.B. 321, Medical Debt De-Weaponization Act is similar to H.B. 1039, also known as the Medical Debt De-Weaponization Act, which stalled out in a House Banking Committee hearing last June. The bill limits the interest rate that large medical facilities can charge patients and limits medical debt buyers or debt collectors from “engaging in any extraordinary collection actions to obtain payment for the care.”

Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said many people have had to deal with issues surrounding medical bills, including her husband, who has a medical bill in collections that he doesn’t owe.

She called the bill a pro-consumer bill that will establish a set of steps that will be followed before someone is billed.

“It lays all that out for screening patients for eligibility for public assistance programs,” she said. “It protects underinsured patients, provides protections from unreasonable debt collections, and sets out an agenda for how that will be done. It enhances legal remedies for patients, and it spells out what will be due, and there are consumer protections in here. It’s about time that we do have that protection.”

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a proponent of both H.B. 1039 and S.B. 321, said the state is facing a crisis where people fear getting medical attention because they fear what could happen to them due to medical billing and medical debt. 

“I will tell you that the opportunity to pass the Medical Debt De-weaponization Act would take us to No. 2 in the United States in terms of protecting the consumers of North Carolina,” he said.

Folwell mentioned that other states are taking action, including Arizona, which had a constitutional amendment on its ballot last November, which passed with 70% of the vote, dealing with medical debt and de-weaponization.

He said he would like to see the hospital industry in North Carolina abide by the presidential executive orders about healthcare transparency, offer a level of charity care equal to the billions of dollars of tax benefit they get, stop putting liens on people’s homes and garnishing their state income tax refund, and have nonprofit hospitals tell people what they make.  

“We’re asking you to support being on the right side of history,” Folwell told legislators. “People should not fear getting medical attention in this state and nor should they fear when they open their mail to figure out what things are going to cost them, nor should they fear looking at a piece of paper and not knowing whether they had a tonsillectomy or an appendectomy.”

Krawiec went on to further describe the consumer protections in the bill. 

“It will hold debt collections in abeyance during insurance appeals,” she said. “It clarifies that it cannot violate an insurance company’s contract with the health care provider for the provider to provide charity or discounted care. It shields family members from medical and nursing home debts that are incurred by a spouse or a parent.”

She said it also requires detailed receipts of payments; prohibits credit reporting of unpaid debts within one year after a patient is billed; creates a new private right of action, and requires the attorney general to write rules to enforce the provisions of this act.

“A huge bucket of thanks to the bill sponsors for this,” said Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe. “I think everybody in this room, probably everybody in this state, has dealt with this issue at some time or another, and it’s amazing and unconscionable that this system that we have exists. So, I just really appreciate you all bearing down and getting to the right place to protect all of us, particularly the folks in our communities who are most vulnerable.”