State Treasurer Dale Folwell hosted a forum discussion in Charlotte on March 16 to address legislation designed to protect patients from lawsuits and crippling debt arising from medical billing, particularly in Charlotte.

Folwell was joined on the forum by Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, former mayor of Huntersville John Anarella, and Pastor Dr. Ricky A. Woods. 

The forum, held at the Central Piedmont Parr Center and livestreamed on the State Treasurer’s Office Facebook page, revealed testimony from several local area citizens highlighting intimate details about struggles with medical billing, costs, and debt, all of which had adverse impacts on their lives.

Carolina Journal spoke with Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, who was not surprised by the testimony, as she has been accustomed to hearing such stories in her decade-long tenure on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners.

“It did not shock me but was certainly hard to hear,” Cotham said. “I have heard similar stories about a lot of different issues where people are suffering. I work a lot with homeless individuals, and I often ask people, ‘What happened in your life that you are here now?’ That is when you hear the stories. Each time it’s always very painful.”

Cotham said she stayed after the event and talked to the speakers, telling them their courage is going to help people who do not have a voice but are crushed under their debts.

During the forum, former Huntersville mayor John Anarella shared his perspective and personal experience with medical insurance costs and the billing associated with typical hospital visits, citing the cost of health insurance for his family and his self-employment.

“As a self-employed person, I have to go out and buy insurance from only one source, which is Blue Cross Blue Shield,” Anarella said. “My wife and I pay over $18,000 a year in premiums and have a high deductible plan of 7,000 dollars.”

He later followed up with an emphasis on holding hospitals more accountable in their patient care regardless of their tax status. This sentiment was echoed in an emailed statement from Anarella to C.J.

“It seems reasonable for hospitals whether for profit or non-profit, but especially non-profits, to be required to be more flexible and caring in their tactics when dealing with a patient’s bill collections,” he said.

As reported in a press release from the State Treasurer’s Office, nearly one in five families in the Charlotte region are currently in medical debt collections, with the figures approaching one in four for communities of color in Mecklenburg County. Lawsuits against thousands of patients by Atrium Health over the issue of medical debt were also noted in the release.

The Medical Debt De-Weaponization Act was crafted to address the shortcomings of the healthcare system in N.C. with respect to medical billing practices, collections, and consumer protection. Introduced during the 2021-2022 legislative session, the bill has bi-partisan support and has been re-introduced during the current session as House Bill 367.  

Speaking with C.J. after the forum, Folwell reflected on the issues of medical costs and billing in N.C. and stressed the need for the General Assembly to pass the Medical Debt De-Weaponization Act.

“I brought this panel together to highlight the fact that this is not a Republican, Democrat, or unaffiliated issue,” Folwell said. “It is a moral issue. As it relates to medical services and medical billing in this state. This is an onion; the more we peel it, the more we cry. Unfortunately, we’re now in a situation where people can’t see themselves past their poverty. Not because of the murderous invasion of Ukraine, Covid, or Acts of God but because of medical billing. We have been very clear about what we’re after, but you continue to see a further cartelization in healthcare in NC. These multi-billion-dollar corporations disguise themselves as non-profits with these multi-million dollar CEO’s who are making the decisions (a) to not tell people what they make, (b) not honor the president of the United States’ executive orders, both current and previous presidents, and (c) make the decision to break people’s kneecaps so they don’t pay their bill.”

In terms of the legislation, Folwell believes it is incumbent on the General Assembly to pass the bill.

“Regarding the Medical Debt De-Weaponization Act, I think that the bill sponsors and the people of North Carolina are on the right side of history,” Folwell said. “I need the leadership in the General Assembly to get on the right side of history regarding this topic.”

A summary of the bill can be read here.