Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

‘It was life-changing:’ How new bill is helping Minnesota families eliminate medical debt

A person cleans a hospital bed.
Joyce Schreier cleans a hospital bed in the emergency room ward of the Murray County Medical Center.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Monday afternoon Gov. Tim Walz will ceremonially sign a bill into law what’s known as the Minnesota Debt Fairness Act. Starting Oct. 1, the bill will ban medical providers from withholding care from patients with unpaid medical bills. It also requires that thousands of Minnesotans be forgiven medical debt that was transferred onto a spouse after death or whose bills have errors in them.

Two Minnesotans whose lives would have been deeply affected by medical debt joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer. Denis St. Martin from Inver Grove Heights has a son whose medical care was paused after a coding error resulted in a $250,000 bill for their family. And Walt Myers was hit with a surprise $135,000 bill transferred from his wife’s hospice care after she passed away from breast cancer in 2019.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: Our lead story this afternoon, Governor Tim Walz will sign a bill into law that bans medical providers from withholding care from patients with unpaid medical bills. It also requires that thousands of Minnesotans be forgiven medical debt that they inherited from their sick spouse who died. The changes will go into effect October the 1st.

Two Minnesotans are on the line right now whose lives would have been deeply affected by medical debt. Denis St. Martin is from Inver Grove Heights. He has a son whose medical care was paused after a coding error resulted in a $250,000 bill for their family. Walt Myers was hit with a surprise $135,000 bill, transferred from his wife's hospice care after she died from breast cancer back in 2019. Both Walt and Dennis are on the line. Welcome to the program.

DENIS ST MARTIN: OK, thanks for having me.

WALT MYERS: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: I'm glad you could take the time, both of you. Say, Denis, let's start with you. A part of this new law, as I mentioned, covers debt that results from bills that have mistakes, erroneous bills, which I understand that happened to your family. Your son has a rare disease, was getting treatment. What happened with this bill? I mean, what did you do when you got this huge error?

DENIS ST MARTIN: Well, I looked at it about three or four times, to make sure we knew what we were looking at. But so if I can, I'll lay out the process. So what had happened was my son was on a medicine. New medicine came out. Our team said, hey, we should be on this medicine, and here's the reasons why. My wife and I looked at it and said, yeah, that makes sense to us.

So then at that point, it was on the team to do whatever paperwork is necessary to submit to insurance, get approval, and then my son gets the medicine. Well, in that area where they were putting together the paperwork, they had a coding error. They put a dot in the wrong place, across the wrong something or other, I don't know; submit it to the insurance company. It went through the insurance company, and it was approved, but it was approved by their medical board.

So when an Institute submits something to an insurance company, it has to go through a medical board. And the medical board looks at all the reasoning, and they say, yeah, this makes sense. And they approve it, or they don't approve it. And then once that approval is agreed upon, it's sent back to the Institute. And then we can move forward with the new medicine. And that's the process.

But the insurance company, when it came time to build the institute, they looked at the details and said, oh, well, this was coded wrong, so we're not paying for it. So then we have months and months and months of medicine that my son was receiving that they're not going to pay for. And the Institute wasn't going to pay for it. So they sent us a bill. And the bill actually was closer to $350,000, not 250,000.


DENIS ST MARTIN: So that's the process.


CATHY WURZER: And then, yeah, I don't know, I mean, if I answered your question there or not.

CATHY WURZER: But you didn't have to pay that, though, right? But I mean, that must have been a very stressful time.

DENIS ST MARTIN: Well, here's the thing. Most people would. Most people would have to pay that bill. My wife and I are very connected. We're well-educated and all these different things. We've been in the medical community here in the Twin Cities for years and years now, and everyone knows us. And so we were able to leverage our connections to make sure that this never hit.

But there was talk of wage garnishment, sending to debt collectors, and things of that nature. So the stress levels on my wife and myself are huge. I can't pay a $350,000 bill. So yeah, we laid in bed talking about that many, many nights.

CATHY WURZER: Now, Denis, I don't want to leave you out of the conversation. I have to be honest with you. I did not know that surviving spouses, to this point, can be held liable for their deceased spouses' medical bills. Is that what happened to you with your wife? I'm sorry, Walt. Are you with me?

WALT MYERS: Yeah, I am, Cathy, yeah.

CATHY WURZER: Sorry about that.

WALT MYERS: No, that's fine. Yeah, that, well, it was kind of a surprise to me, too. But I just thought that, well, I was holding the insurance policy that when she passed away, I guess I was willing to pay = deductible, my maximum out of pocket, that sort of thing, which is $4,000.

But as I started receiving bills from the insurance company, it was way above that $4,000, and I couldn't understand what was happening. And unfortunately, the people-- I tried dealing with it on my own, and I called the people I thought could help me. And everybody was sympathetic and that, but really, nobody seemed to know what to do.

So I just remain had this offhanded comment that the social worker, where we would go for treatment every three weeks-- my wife would go, and she randomly said to us as she was walking by one day, she goes, if you ever need legal help, there's this organization called Cancer Legal Care, that provides legal services to cancer patients in the state of Minnesota. And what stuck with me about that comment was I just remember thinking, well, why would I ever need legal help?

So when I was going through this process of trying to figure out what to do with this, it turns out, over $135,000 surprise, bill, this just popped into my head. And I'm going, oh, yeah, I should give them a call. And that's what I did. And through a long process, we were able to get it figured out and get that $135,000 surprise bill forgiven by the insurance company. But it was, like Denis was saying, many sleepless nights, tossing and turning, going, How am I going to deal with this? It was brutal. I don't know how else to describe it.

CATHY WURZER: And on top of the grief of your wife's death, too.

WALT MYERS: Yes. Yeah, there's a lot going on there. And be honest with you, this is the last thing I needed to be dealing with. But it wasn't going to go away. And yeah, I couldn't ignore it. So that was pretty much what happened.

CATHY WURZER: So I'm sure both of you are at the Capitol this past session, watching and probably participating in the testimony over this bill. Is both your experiences pretty on par with what you heard with other folks who were testifying? I mean, medical debt is a huge problem across the country, obviously. Denis, I'm curious as to what you heard in committee hearings.

DENIS ST MARTIN: Yeah, it is. It's very similar. They're all their own story, but at the end of the day, they all come to the same conclusion. And a lot of it is erroneous. And the things that can happen to you as an individual because of these errors-- or not even errors, just their practices, are life altering. And when you're dealing with the death of a spouse, and you have this craziness come upon you, I mean, What does that do to you and to the people around you?

And this bill really attacks some of those things. And it requires the medical providers to publish their medical debt collection practices, which I think is a huge thing. And just seeing what these people's requirements are for coming after you, I think, will change those requirements, would be my guess, once the public gets to take a look at it.

CATHY WURZER: And, Walt, how do you think things will change with this new law?

WALT MYERS: Well, I think that people who aren't affected by spousal medical debt and inheriting that might be wondering, What's the big deal? But I can assure you that people who are affected by that and who will be affected by that and, especially in my situation, they're going to know what the big deal is.

And so I can tell you that this was-- I don't know how else to describe it. It was life changing for me to have-- I had just retired. My wife passed away, I mean, just all that stuff that goes with that and then to have this on top of it. So this was a life-changing experience for me, and this will be a life-changing experience for other Minnesotans who have their spousal medical debt. It will no longer be an issue for them. So this is a big deal for people like that.

CATHY WURZER: Well, Denis and Walt, thanks for your time. We wish you all the best.

WALT MYERS: Thank you.

DENIS ST MARTIN: Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Denis St. Martin, from Inver Grove Heights, and Walt Myers, from Lakeville.

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