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Billionaire unveils fund to defend people from medical-debt collectors

Key Points
  • Idaho's wealthiest man just launched a "consumer protection fund" to defend people from "overly aggressive medical debt collectors."
  • "I've got the resources, and have been looking for good ways to use them to help folks," says Frank VanderSloot, CEO of Melaleuca, a health products company.
  • His interest in medical debt follows a Melaleuca employee getting hit with a bill of nearly $6,000 from an original medical expense of $294.
In this Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015 file photo, a nurse places a patient's medication on an intravenous stand at a hospital in Philadelphia.
AP Photo | Matt Rourke

Idaho's wealthiest man just launched a new fund to defend people from "overly aggressive medical debt collectors."

About 1 in 5 Americans with health insurance has some medical debt, and sometimes it's not only the billed health-care costs but the creditor's fees and legal expenses that can bring financial hardship to families.

The problem of medical debt is even worse among uninsured, with 53% tackling some bill problem, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times survey from 2016. Two-thirds of people who file bankruptcy cite medical bills as a factor.

"Medical rates and medical expenses continue to skyrocket, going up and up," said Frank VanderSloot, founder and CEO of Melaleuca, an Idaho Falls-based health products company.

VanderSloot and his wife, Belinda, announced a $500,000 legal defense fund last week to help east Idahoans with medical debt who also have been slapped with "excessive attorney fees."

"I just said let's start up this fund," the businessman told CNBC this week. "I've got the resources and have been looking for good ways to use them to help folks."

AP Photo | John Miller
Frank VanderSloot, who owns Melaleuca, Inc., a healthcare products company, is seen in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

With a net worth estimated at $4.5 billion, VanderSloot is considered Idaho's wealthiest individual, according to Forbes. He's also an active donor to the Republican Party and a former national finance co-chairman for Mitt Romney's 2008 and 2012 presidential bids.

According to Consumer Reports, it's not unusual for people to get contacted about a debt they don't recognize.

"Consumers really have to pay close attention to these confusing medical bills when they come in and try to settle it," said Chuck Bell, a programs director at Consumer Reports. "But also be aware that you have to keep checking your credit report because it could be you saw a provider that sent something to collections that you were never even billed for."

Texas leads the nation with the biggest total medical debt of its population, followed by California and Florida, according to credit reports tracked by TransUnion. Nearly 26% of the population in Texas has some medical debt, and even in smaller states such as Idaho, the problem exists with about 16% of adults.

In announcing the fund, VanderSloot indicated it would defend against "tactics used by overly aggressive medical debt collectors."

For one, VanderSloot is taking on a local medical-debt collection company, Medical Recovery Services, or MRS.

"We've got an outfit operating in Idaho Falls, a debt collection agency, that's more interested in running up attorney fees than they are in collecting medical debt," VanderSloot told CNBC.

Even though medical debt can lead to litigation, some attorneys suggest U.S. consumers are more likely to be sued for having credit card debt. In some states, including Idaho, consumers have just 21 days to respond to collection lawsuits.

The billionaire said his interest in the medical debt issue follows the case of a Melaleuca employee with a bill of nearly $6,000 from an original medical expense of $294. The original medical bill has since been paid by the employee.

VanderSloot claims MRS tried to garnish the wages of the Melaleuca employee. The matter ended with Melaleuca and the collection company locking horns in court.

"How they were behaving with us, the employer, seemed really odd," said VanderSloot. He alleges MRS used "bullying kind of tactics" and engaged in "patterns that appear to be unethical at the least."

MRS strongly rejects allegations that it has done anything wrong.

"We take our professional and ethical obligations very seriously," MRS attorney Bryan Smith told CNBC in an email statement. "In representing the interests of our clients, we always ensure to follow all applicable rules, regulations, and statutes — as well as our professional, ethical obligations."

Smith also said the debt collection company's "practices are fully supported by the applicable laws of our highly regulated industry, and the court determines post-judgment fees on a case-by-case basis."

Republican Idaho state Rep. Bryan Zollinger, an outside attorney for MRS, fired back that VanderSloot "is misinformed." Also, Zollinger insists he doesn't make any business decisions for the Idaho Falls collections company, even though he's listed as a registered agent.

Zollinger claims that the matter with VanderSloot is "a personal beef because he has an employee who was garnished. Everything we do is not only legal, but I believe everything we do is ethical as well."

Even so, Zollinger said he hopes to sit down with VanderSloot to sort out the situation. "I'd be happy to walk him through any of our files or any of the decisions."