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New law to help rein in health care costs, make medical bills fairer

Release date: 7/25/2013

Legislation includes provisions pushed by AG Cooper

Raleigh:  Provisions of a bill that won approval from the General Assembly today will help make medical bills less confusing and reform hospital debt collections while fighting rising health care costs, Attorney General Roy Cooper said.
“Every day my office hears from North Carolinians who are struggling with incomprehensible medical bills and unreasonable collection practices, and this bill will restore some fairness for those consumers,” Cooper said. “No one state or law can solve all the health care challenges we face, but these are important steps in the right direction.”
Several ideas that Cooper shared with legislators in a letter in April were included in the bill.
The legislation will help consumers by:

  • Giving them more time to request an itemized health care bill.
  • Requiring that health care bills be written in easy-to-understand language instead of medical jargon.
  • Mandating that health care facilities provide refunds for overpayments and billing errors within 45 days.
  • Prohibiting hospitals from charging patients for services that would have been covered by their insurance had the hospital submitted paperwork on time.
  • Requiring that consumers be given accurate information about whether or not a health care provider is in a patient’s insurance network. 
  • Reforming hospital collection practices, including not referring patients to collections while their application for charity care is still pending, giving 30 days’ notice before an account is sent to collections, requiring collection agencies to get a hospital’s approval before taking a patient to court, and barring hospitals from being able to force a patient to sell their home to pay medical bills.
In addition, the bill gives the public more information on medical costs and hospital charity policies.  Consumers would be able to visit a website to look up the costs for common treatments and medical procedures for each hospital in the state.  Hospitals would have to share their policies for providing charity or financial assistance to people unable to pay their bills, both in their facilities and online.

“We recommend that consumers shop around for a good deal, but our health care system doesn’t make that easy to do,” Cooper said.  “Giving consumers straightforward information on what medical services cost and what they owe will help them make better decisions about their health care.”

Cooper also believes that health care facilities should be required to give notice of mergers and acquisitions, something not included in the legislation.  A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court says that state health care facilities are not immune from antitrust laws.  Requiring timely notice of mergers and acquisitions to both the Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Trade Commission would help them to use this enforcement power.