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Threats to consumers? Or threats to hospitals?

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A hearing late this afternoon before the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee could mark a session-long fight over Florida’s consumer protection laws as they relate to bill collectors harassing private citizens and hospitals finding themselves perhaps caught in a scam and paying a high penalty for a purposefully mismailed complaint.

A bill by Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, Senate Bill 562, would shield hospitals from liability when bill collection demands continue to harass private citizens over their unpaid bills.

But the bill creates more harassment and confusion for consumers and hospitals alike, opponents said.

The House companion bill, HB 713, has been introduced by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican.

“Sen. Stargel’s bill eviscerates the protection that consumers receive from bill collectors. Some of my clients get 10 and 20 calls a day,” said Aaron Swift of Leavengood, Dauval, Boyle & Meyer and a member of the Florida Justice Association which has questioned Stargel’s bill.

Not so, said Stargel, who said the Florida Justice Association has never contacted her personally about the bill.

Both state and federal statutes protect consumers from harassing phone calls from bill collectors. Generally, the consumer’s attorney only has to send a letter to the hospital billing department to get the multiple calls and bills to stop.

If the collection department, usually hospitals or other large health care entities, fail to stop the consumer can sue for damages. That’s where some believe the scams occur.

“There is a cottage industry out there that will send the (cease and desist) letter to a different department or old address on purpose. Then when the collection calls continue, the senders can play ‘gotcha,’” Stargel said explaining hospitals are then liable for large penalties and the consumer’s attorney fees.

Stargel’s bill states that the letter stopping harassing calls must be sent to a specific address for accounts receivable departments and that if sent to just any address within a hospital other than what is specified it does not count as a violation by the hospital for not acting.

But Swift, said that the bill means that collectors can continue to call. Acknowledging that he, too, has heard of the scams, he said that a different requirement mandating attorneys call the accounts receivable department would solve the problem.

“The current bill creates an inconsistency that would conflict with state and federal protections,” he said.

Former Ledger of Lakeland columnist Bill Rufty is Central Florida political correspondent for SaintPetersBlog and Florida Politics. Rufty had been with the Ledger from 1985-2015, where, as political editor, he covered a wide range of beats, including local and state politics, the Lakeland City Commission, and the Florida Legislature. Ledger editor Lenore Devore said about Rufty’s 30-year career: “[He is] a man full of knowledge, a polling expert and a war history buff … who has a steel trap in his brain, remembering details most of us have long since forgotten.”

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