N.C. city cracks down on nearly $4M in unpaid EMS bills

Officials plan to make up some of the loss by placing the collection of bills owed to EMS in the hands of the tax department, and giving them the authority to use all legal collection methods

By Keith Strange
The Mount Airy News

DOBSON, N.C. — While officials note they are still trying to get the kinks worked out regarding the process, they say efforts to aggressively go after money owed the county’s emergency medical services (EMS) department are under way.

Earlier this year, the board unanimously approved giving county tax collector Michael Hartgrove the authority to collect on behalf of the department of emergency services.

By placing the collection of bills owed to EMS in the hands of the tax department, and giving them the authority to use all legal collection methods, Hartgrove said he feels sure the county can make up some of that loss.

He said those collection methods can involve garnishment of wages, attachment of things like income taxes and bank accounts and liens.

When the board was considering the more aggressive collective efforts, county Emergency Services Director John Shelton told the board he believes there is between $3 million and $4 million outstanding in the emergency services department alone.

During its meeting Tuesday night, Hartgrove said the first tentative steps were taken around July 15, when his office began garnishment procedures as an effort to collect delinquent bills.

“We had a lot of preliminary work to do first regarding things like getting our department and the EMS department on the same page and working the same way to make it a seamless process,” he said. “We then had to do a few test cases and ensure that the money coming in was being properly accounted for.”

Hargrove said so far his office has collected around $25,000 in delinquent bills, and have $150,000 “in play.”

“We have garnishments in place for that amount that will be paid,” he said. “And we’re looking at another $40,000 that we think we may be able to track down and collect.”

The collection efforts at this point are primarily through garnishments, since Hartgrove said placing liens on property is a “little more complicated.”

“It’s very expensive, and we’re going to look at accounts we can identify as being worth our while,” he said. “Unless there is accumulated debt, we probably won’t be using it.

“Our primary task is to use tools like garnishments and attachment of bank accounts,” he said. “We haven’t yet done any attachments, but it’s certainly in the works.”

For Hargrove, the effort is already paying dividends, although he noted collection efforts are going to get under way in earnest in the near future.

“By the end of September or October, we should have a lot more collections coming in because we really ramped up our efforts in the last two weeks of August,” he said.

Hartgrove said at this point there are around 350 accounts that have been identified as ripe for collection.

“We only identify those we think we can garnish after working with the EMS department,” he said. “It’s easier for us to look at the accounts and identify which ones we think we can collect and then ask the EMS department whether they want us to garnish them.”

As of Tuesday, Hartgrove said an additional 60 bills had been identified for collection.

“I think this process will pick up quite a bit in the near future,” he said. “I’d say we’re going to be doing hundreds of garnishments a month for the rest of this calendar year.”

Tuesday night, Shelton told the board the goal isn’t to punish those who need to use the service but can’t pay the bills.

“The whole goal is to make the service pay for itself and if we can do that, it’s well worth the money,” he said. “The goal is to go after people who can pay but are not.”


©2014 The Mount Airy News (Mount Airy, N.C.)

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