Senator trying to change law that leaves Utahns with dead spouse’s medical debt

Feb 27, 2023, 10:53 PM

SALT LAKE CITY — If you were to die today, just about every debt you owe would have to be paid out of your estate, or not get paid at all.

In Utah, that’s not the case with medical debt.

State law allows hospitals and doctors to come after the surviving spouse for the deceased spouse’s medical bills. Sen. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, introduced SB196, a bill that would exempt medical expenses from being deemed a “family expense.”

“It just seems like a really poor policy, that we would go after a surviving spouse for medical debt that their deceased partner incurred,” Pitcher said.

As KSL Investigators previously reported, that “family expense” distinction can have a major impact on Utah families.

Luonda Davis was pursued by collections after the University of Utah Hospital transferred the balance owed by her late husband, Marvin, into her name after he died in 2011.

Gephardt: Widow On Hook For Over $66K From Late Husband’s Medical Bills

The debt was renewed by the collections company in 2020, and after additional fees were tacked on, Davis owed $78,471.22.

It wasn’t until KSL Investigators intervened and asked questions that the debt was written off, per University of Utah Health policy.

It was a similar story for Keith Zipprich, who continues to fight a bill from a debt collector in court after his wife died of cancer in 2021.

With most debts, when someone dies, the bill collectors can try to collect from the deceased’s estate. Once that money is gone, the bill collector is generally out of luck.

Medical debt considered as a family expense is a centuries’ old law, dating back when women were not allowed to own property or carry debt in her own name.

At least 10 other states have repealed this type of law relating to medical debt. Utah is not one of them.

Both Davis and Zipprich testified at the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Friday, telling lawmakers about their experiences with these debts, and sharing their support for the proposed law.

The bill faced strong opposition from lobbyists on behalf of doctors and smaller physician clinics.

“We have grave concerns about this bill,” said Michelle McComber with the Utah Medical Association. “This doesn’t say for indigent. This doesn’t say if you don’t have any money. You could have a $5 million trust, you could have whatever, a lot of money, and it still says you’re not going to pay it off.”

While Pitcher said her research found Utah’s three largest hospital groups have a policy not to bill deceased patients’ partners, lobbyists argued smaller practices don’t have the same margins to be able to write off the debt.

“Oftentimes, especially in smaller clinics, they don’t have the ability to write these things off,” said Maryann Martindale, CEO of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians. “Their bottom line is very close month to month.”

As the meeting drew to a close, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, advised adjourning the meeting rather than voting on the measure, saying, “I don’t know that you have the votes to get this out today.”

Ultimately, Pitcher opted to halt the bill for now. She plans to submit the issue for study during the interim and try pitching the bill again during the 2024 Legislative Session.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Senator trying to change law that leaves Utahns with dead spouse’s medical debt