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Medical Debt Bill Divides Idaho House Republicans

James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio
Rep. Bryan Zollinger (R-Idaho Falls), who works as a medical debt collector in his day job, spoke for half of a roughly two-hour debate over new medical debt regulations.

Moderate House Republicans teamed up with Democrats Monday to push through sweeping changes in how Idaho regulates medical debt collections.

The vote was a striking rebuke of one of their own and a tale of tug o’war between an influential lobbying group and a billionaire businessman.

The bill is being pushed by Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot. Rep. Bryan Zollinger (R-Idaho Falls) is an attorney who collects medical debt for his clients and has clashed with VanderSloot in court over these debts.

The bill would set deadlines for medical providers to submit invoices to both insurance companies and the patients themselves. Someone could only be sent to collections if they don’t pay their bill within 90 days.

It would also cap fees lawyers could collect if they win in court, among other things.

“All these horror stories — getting sent to [collections] doesn’t cost anything at all,” Zollinger said, noting debtors can avoid extra fees if they pay the first time they get called by a collection agency.

But just being sent to collections could still put a black mark on a person’s credit report for years.

Zollinger alone spoke for nearly half of the two-hour debate after declaring a conflict of interest on the issue. He said the bill strips away a doctor’s right to be paid.

“Frankly, I think this is flat out un-American,” he said.

Zollinger specifically mentioned the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative lobbying group that ranks this proposal among the worst introduced this session.

That triggered a testy scene involving Rep. Ron Furniss (R-Rigby), who called out Zollinger’s business partner, Bryan Smith, and his connections to the group.

“Well the member of the board [for the Idaho Freedom Foundation] is the attorney ... that’s part of the collection agency,” Furniss said, who was quickly told to avoid personal attacks by House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley).

Smith is also a vice chair of the Idaho Republican Party.

The 49 lawmakers who approved the bill will get penalized in the lobbying group’s annual “Freedom Index.”

One of those lawmakers is Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt (R-Eagle), who told the House about her parents being sent to collections over medical debt.

DeMordaunt said her parents weren’t given transparency about their bills or enough time to pay them.

“They were paying their bills. They ran out of time. Let’s give parents and the hardworking families of Idaho at least those two things,” she said.

Another, House Majority Caucus Leader Megan Blanksma (R-Hemmett), said she’s been sent the same $1,600 emergency room bill three times after her son rolled his pickup truck two years ago.

“As much as I tried to make sure that medical debt is cleared, it becomes almost impossible when they just continue to bill you, refund you, bill you again,” Blanksma said.

The proposal now heads to the Senate.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season.

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