Get Gephardt: Husband sued for deceased wife’s unpaid medical bill

Dec 6, 2022, 11:07 PM

VERNAL, Utah — It’s been a little over a year since Keith Zipprich lost his wife, Jo, to cancer.

Jo battled that cancer for many months, as bills stacked up for those many treatments.

Keith said Jo’s insurance covered most of the costs, and she was paying other bills up until the time of her death. But about a year after she died, Keith said he was surprised when he, himself, was slapped with a lawsuit from a debt collector trying to collect on one of Jo’s unpaid bills with Uintah Basin Healthcare.

“This bill came to me in forms of a lawsuit,” Keith said. “By the time this goes all through court, they’re talking to over $3,000.”

Jo died penny-less, Keith said. She had no estate. So now, the hospital is coming after him for bills that are not his.

When he called the collection agency listed on the lawsuit, he said he was told that he’s responsible to pay for his late-wife’s medical debt under Utah law.

That is, technically, true.

Utah law considers it a “benefit” to the “family unit” when someone goes to the doctor to try and get better. Thus, medical debt is a family expense, and a hospital is free to go after “both spouses or of either of them separately” for such unpaid debts.

Jason Iuliano, who teaches consumer law at the University of Utah, said the law is “absurd.”

Iuliano said the law’s origins go back hundreds of years, to a time before women could own property or enter into contracts.

“It came about as a way for women, in short, to basically buy goods and services and bill them to their husbands because they couldn’t actually enter into the contracts themselves,” he said. “It just doesn’t have a place in modern society.”

More and more states agree. At one point, what is on Utah’s books was the law of the land, but in recent years, 10 states have repealed the law, allowing surviving spouses to be sued personally for unpaid medical debt. A hospital or doctor could go after the estate, but if the estate has nothing, then the hospital cannot collect for the person who didn’t incur the debt, Iuliano said.

Get Gephardt asked Iuliano if there is anything a spouse in Utah can do to avoid getting slapped with the bills themselves if their spouse is terminally ill. The answer is grim.

“Divorce your spouse, or to move out of the house and no longer cohabitate with your spouse,” he said. “Obviously, both of those are terrible options.”

By email, Uintah Basin Healthcare Vice President Maigen Zobell defended its collection practices, writing, “Uintah Basin Healthcare follows standard legal collection practices and we are confident that our collection agencies do the same.”

Zobell wrote they are “still willing to work with Keith on this matter.”

He added, “It is standard practice that a deceased patient’s spouse is considered responsible for the patient’s remaining debt,” and pointed to previous reporting done by the KSL Investigators on the matter.

In a report from 2020, the KSL Investigators found that, while it is allowed legally, it is not standard practice for all doctors and hospitals. The University of Utah Hospital, for example, made it their policy a few years ago to not go after a surviving spouse for medical bills they incurred before death.

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Get Gephardt: Husband sued for deceased wife’s unpaid medical bill