NC residents decry ambulance billing plan

"People make life-threatening decisions based on their ability to pay. There will be people who won't call 911," Dr. Jessica Saxe said


By Fred Clasen-Kelly
The Charlotte Observer

MECKLENBURG, N.C. — Activists vowed Tuesday to keep up protests against Mecklenburg County’s proposal to seize wages and bank accounts for unpaid ambulance bills.

During a county Board of Commissioners meeting, residents and disability rights advocates called the idea “inhumane” and “dangerous.”

“People make life-threatening decisions based on their ability to pay,” Dr. Jessica Saxe told commissioners. “There will be people who won’t call 911.”

Saxe, a longtime family physician in Charlotte, called the proposal “one of the most health-threatening policies I’ve ever heard of.”

On Sept. 17, Mecklenburg County announced that bills that are more than 120 days overdue for Medic, the Mecklenburg Emergency Medical Services Agency, will be sent to the Mecklenburg County Tax Collector’s Office starting in October.

The change would allow the county to garnish wages or bank deposits directly from patients’ banks or employers to pay overdue bills.

Medic has said the system loses millions of dollars on unpaid bills under the current system. Now, delinquent debts are sent to a private collection agency after 120 days.

But after receiving negative public reaction from activists, commissioners said they needed more time to study the issue and to look for alternative solutions.

At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners offered no comment after a series of speakers condemned the proposal.

Medic spokeswoman Grace Nelson told the Observer late Tuesday that officials are still investigating options.

“We’re working with the county to explore options,” Nelson said. “Everything is on pause.”

How Medic is operated

Atrium Health and Novant Health, the Charlotte region’s two biggest healthcare providers, operate Medic under a contract with Mecklenburg County. User fees cover most of the service’s $66 million annual budget. Mecklenburg County taxpayers provide about $11 million annually.

The county once ran the ambulance service, but officials formed the current system in the 1990s after a series of Observer reports detailed how staff shortages, unnecessary calls and uncollected bills contributed to life-threatening ambulance delays.

Costs for ambulance rides typically range from roughly $1,050 to $1,270, according to Medic’s website. Costs can vary depending on the severity of the patient’s condition.

Nearly, 2,700 bills are over 120 days past due, totaling $2.2 million, Medic has said recently.

Protest organizer Tera Long urged the county to assume a larger role in paying for ambulance service instead taking measures against patients who often make low wages or face daunting hospital bills.

“Be the moral compass that the community needs,” Long said.

Janice Covington Allison said commissioners have an obligation to show compassion to the poor.

“People are scared,” Covington Allison said. “County government should make sure all people are taken care of. ... Do the the right thing.”

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©2019 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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