RALEIGH, NC (WNCN) — Bev Veals found herself in the middle of two fights at the same time — one with cancer, the other with creditors trying to raise money for her treatment.

The Carolina Beach mother and entertainer found herself in medical bankruptcy a decade and a half ago after racking up more than $180,000 in medical debt during several battles with cancer.

“You’re fighting disease while fighting the system in all likelihood that you’re not going to win because the average consumer isn’t expected to win this battle,” Veals told CBS 17. “In a way or another, very few have come out of this without losing something we’ve worked hard on for a long time.

And medical debt has become even more of a concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the public health crisis driving more people into hospitals and high unemployment.

An uninsured COVID-19 patient, or an insured seeing an out-of-network provider with a plan with no out-of-network benefit, who requires a hospital stay faces an average charge of $73,300, according to Fairhealth.org.

And according to the most recent figures from the Urban Institutenearly a quarter of North Carolina residents have medical debt currently in collection with a median amount of $698.

“When you’re in treatment for some kind of condition or disease and you’re really fighting for your life, the thought processes that go through your head aren’t like you’re trying to buy a house or you’re trying to buy a car, you’re trying to fund something,” Veals said. “You’re funding, basically, your life. And you don’t have the funds to pay your medical debt. You’re funding your survival.

Patient advocates and state Attorney General Josh Stein are watching closely. Stein told CBS 17 his office has yet to hear many complaints.

“But obviously for someone who’s been through COVID, many of whom have lost their jobs, they don’t have the resources to pay,” Stein said. “Any hospital that launches collection efforts against these people is doing the very wrong thing.”

Hospitals in other states have even gone so far as to sue their former patients for unpaid payments, ProPublica surveys and a number of other media outlets have discovered.

Cynthia Charles of the North Carolina Healthcare Association said her group was not aware of any hospitals here doing this.

“Health systems and hospitals know this is a difficult time for many people due to the economic downturn and COVID-19 and want to hear from patients who have concerns about bills so they can work with them. them to resolve the situation,” she said.

Officials from three of the Triangle’s largest health systems — UNC Health, UNC REX and Duke Health — have all said they will no longer sue their patients for bills.

Leslie Pegram, public records manager at UNC Health, said that between March 1 and September 30, UNC hospitals placed 49,416 accounts for referrals to collection agencies, with those accounts having an average age of 207 days at from the date of service. This represents less than 3% of the costs for patients seen during this period, spokesman Phil Bridges said.

UNC REX Healthcare had 21,000 uncollectible accounts, representing 2.18% of the total — a slight year-over-year reduction, hospital spokesman Alan Wolf said.

UNC Health only places a bad debt account if a patient has not been approved for financial assistance, a payment plan or reimbursement of the outstanding balance after more than 140 days, Bridges said, adding that the complexity of the bad debt makes it difficult to attribute changes in bad debt to COVID-19 or any other factor.

“Even before COVID, UNC Health had a number of policies and programs in place to support and assist our most financially vulnerable patients, including a generous charitable care policy and dedicated financial aid resources to assist patients. to identify and apply for financial support programs,” he said.

Duke Health officials said they decided three years ago that their “pursuit of unpaid medical bills would no longer include filing lawsuits or liens, or wage garnishment,” they said. in a press release. They added that starting this year, consumer credit agencies will not receive “adverse reports” due to their bill collection processes.

And FirstHealth spokeswoman Gretchen Kelly said its nonprofit system “does not include patient lawsuits,” pointing to a “very robust” financial assistance program for underinsured patients, uninsured or who meet federal poverty guidelines.

Officials of several other local health care providers — including WakeMed, Cape Fear Valley and Harnett Health — did not respond to CBS 17’s inquiries about their practices.

“If you have a debt to a hospital, it’s the same as a debt you would have to someone else,” Stein said. “The difference is that many hospitals are not-for-profit and therefore have a charitable mission involved, and they have a charity care policy. This is why it is really important that you, as a customer, contact the hospital and ask what they can do for you if you are having difficulty paying your bills.

So what should you do if you’re dealing with a debt collector for a medical bill?

Stein says the first step is to “engage the hospital” and ask about their charitable care policy to determine if you qualify or if you can work out a payment plan with them.

He advises people “really harassed by a debt collector, whether it’s a hospital or someone else” to call his office toll-free at 877-5-NO-SCAM.

Veals – who said a medical provider told her she had to pay 100% of the cost of chemotherapy treatment before she could receive another – echoed that advice.

“Be in constant contact with the business office (for) the doctor or hospital you work with and try to negotiate with them ways to keep it out of the hands of creditors,” she said. “Because once it’s in the hands of creditors, the niceties disappear.”

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