Medical debt is one of the most common forms of household debt in the country. At least one in every five Americans had trouble paying off medical debt in 2016, according to Becker’s Hospital Review, and USA Today reports overwhelming medical debt as a major reason people declare personal bankruptcy.
Now a new bill moving through the Georgia legislature would allow public hospitals to vacuum up your state tax refund and use it to pay down any unpaid medical debt — all without getting a court order.
The bill is called H.B. 81, and the idea behind it is that rural hospitals, already facing an existential financial crisis, would be able to take greater action to pay down medical debt from patients who are behind on their bills.
Tax refunds can already be intercepted for certain things in Georgia, including traffic tickets or court fines. But for most other things, organizations usually have to ask a court before getting permission to seize a refund.
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Not in this bill. Instead, a seizure notice would be mailed to the home of the debtor, who would have 30 days to challenge it. After that, their state tax return would be forfeited, up to the amount they owe the hospital.
Rep. Tom McCall, a Republican representing Elberton, is the lead sponsor of the legislation.
“The pushback that I have heard is, ‘Well, people depend on their tax refund to pay their bills.’ A hospital bill is not a bill?” McCall told the Moultrie Observer. “You went and got the services, and you are expected to pay.”
The bill would only apply to hospitals run by state entities and would mandate that hospitals work with debtors to give them financial assistance first if they qualified.
Supporters say the move is necessary as isolated hospitals continue struggling to keep their doors open. Hospital administrators have pointed to a number of reasons why they are in such a dire situation: cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, bad debt, the complications of implementing the Affordable Care Act and more.
“Clearly these hospitals are suffering because there’s a substantial population that have come to realize that they will always get treated at the hospital, and decided in the shortage of caregivers their source of care is going to be the emergency room,” Jimmy Lewis, the CEO of Hometown Health, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Then they get their income tax refund and use it to buy candy and beer.”
Daniel Graves,who oversees Elbert Memorial Hospital in Elberton, told a group of lawmakers that people need to understand the reason the bill is necessary.
“If rural health care disappears, people die. People in Elbert County will die unnecessarily if we can’t find a solution to this problem,” he said, according to the Moultrie Observer.
Georgia Watch, a consumer advocate group, announced its opposition to the proposed law in March, saying it was “widely known that there is room for error and dispute when it comes to hospital bills.”
The bill passed in the state House of Representatives on Feb. 28 with 94 yes votes and 71 no votes, alongside a few abstentions. It will now pass through the state Senate and, if passed and signed into law, would become effective in July.