Dingell, Tlaib urge GOP colleagues to support crack down on junk fees

Inkster ― Two Michigan Democratic congresswomen are urging Republicans to join the Biden administration’s effort to crack down on “junk” fees added to medical, aviation and other industry billings that have a trickle-down effect on Americans.

U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell of Ann Arbor and Rashida Tlaib of Detroit met at the Western Wayne Family Health Center in Inkster on Monday to explain their efforts to tackle junk fees during National Health Center Week. Junk fees are added costs to the advertised price and often seen when buying concert tickets, resort stays, airline travel, internet and cable services, banking services and unexpected health care fees.

“We’re taken aback to see airlines charging more for you to sit next to your child and, lately, we’re hearing renters are experiencing hidden fees by paying their rent online,” said Tlaib, who sits on the House Financial Services Committee.

“The typical American pays $31 in credit card late fees and overall, bank fees cost Americans billions of dollars each year. We know that surprise junk fees, especially in the medical field, impose a significant burden on our patients. Over 20% of families are experiencing medical debt on their credit reports.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell at the Western Wayne Family Health Center in Inkster with CEO Linda Atkins.

The Biden administration has implemented the No Surprises Act, which was adopted in December 2020 during the Trump administration. It has prevented $20 million in surprise out-of-network charges by health providers and closed loopholes that allowed health plans to contract with hospitals that aren’t considered in network “setting patients up for surprise bills,” Tlaib said.

Republican representatives, including a representative for House Financial Services Chairman Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment.

But medical providers have complained that the No Surprises Act, a bipartisan law, forced insurers and providers to go through an independent arbitration to settle their differences without getting patients involved, and the process ends up taking months before they get reimbursed by insurers, according to Axios.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly called for federal agencies, Congress and private companies to address surprise fees that can jack up consumers’ cost by 20%. Three of the biggest airlines ― American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Frontier ― have already agreed to scrap fees for children to sit with parents.

During the news conference, Tlaib called for an end to “in-network” designations that aren’t always transparent for patients to know which providers at an in-network hospital, for example, might be out of their insurance network and, therefore, cost more. She said insurance companies are manipulating short-term plans, which don’t have to meet the same standards as others in the federal marketplace.

“If you get medical care at an in-network hospital, all that care you received there should be covered. It’s really unbelievable that someone could deliver a baby at an in-network hospital and later receive a bill telling them that their anesthesiologist was out of network and charge a $1,500 additional fee,” Tlaib said.

She’s also supporting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s proposed rule capping credit card late fees because half of credit card profits are attributable to late fees, she said.

“They’re building actual business plans around late fees,” Tlaib said. “This is not reasonable and such fees cost cardholders and their families $12 billion each year. Even worse, they’re just largely unnecessary and do not reflect the cost that the companies actually face in late fees.”

Dingell, who co-chairs Medicare for All Caucus, noted that one in five Americans have medical debt on credit card bills, making it harder for them to access employment, housing or leasing a vehicle.

She said people are refusing to go see a doctor because they’re afraid of what the bill will be and can’t afford to miss a paycheck. Meanwhile, doctors may not know the fees attached to their services, leaving a lack of transparency when patients visit hospitals or urgent care clinics, she said.

“The No. 1 cause of bankruptcy in this country is medical bills,” Dingell said. “There are junk fees on everything, pressuring us when we’re purchasing airfare for Christmas, or a new car, or new electronic device. Too many families have faced this hardship and have been pushed to financial ruin. We’re not going to stop until we fix it.”

The Western Wayne Family Health Center is a group of four federally funded community health centers that focus on medical, behavioral health and dental services in Inkster, Taylor, Dearborn and Lincoln Park. Its CEO, Linda Atkins said their centers have 116 staff members serving 17,000 patients annually, 60% of which rely on Medicare.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell at the Western Wayne Family Health Center in Inkster with CEO Linda Atkins.

The low-cost clinic helps those who are uninsured or underinsured and when residents call for an appointment, they are told over the phone how much the cost might be.

“We do see pushback from patients who can’t afford it. They’ll say, ‘Can I come in and get seen, but not labs drawn?’ But some of the conditions require those labs,” Atkins said.

“The biggest impact is that our patients are sometimes transient, so they don’t receive the information that they’re being dropped off Medicaid. That comes as a surprise to them. They walk in and they have no coverage and don’t understand why they were kicked off.”

About 75% of Atkins patients are on Medicaid and about 50% of those patients would be bumped off if they don’t do a redetermination to renew their coverage.

“Some patients don’t come at all, so they don’t know they don’t have coverage,” Atkins said. “We’ve been working with the state to help get the message out with signage, flyers and robocalls to help them realize they may not have coverage anymore and that they can get assisted from us.”

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