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Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is expanding his probe into medical debt collection and inviting delinquent patients to share their stories at upcoming listening sessions and his State Fair booth.

Ellison announced the forums Friday and publicly acknowledged his office’s ongoing investigation into collection practices by Allina Health — which was criticized for denying non-emergency care to patients with substantial unpaid bills. Allina paused that policy for review, but other health care providers still use it.

“The high cost of healthcare in Minnesota and across the country makes it tough enough to afford your life,” Ellison said. “Medical-billing practices that are aggressive, abusive, or deceptive also make it hard to live with the dignity, safety, and respect.”

An Allina spokeswoman said she was preparing a response Friday to Ellison’s statement. In late July, the Minneapolis-based health system said the policy was paused until further notice.

Only 2% of Minnesota adults have medical debt in collections, compared to 13% nationally, according to the Urban Institute’s widely cited annual report. That percentage is an undercount, though, because of a unique agreement in Minnesota by which hospitals don’t report patients with overdue bills to collection agencies.

Ellison and his predecessors have long been involved in regulating medical debt collection, brokering the agreement that is now signed by almost every Minnesota hospital system. The deal also prevents abusive or aggressive collection practices, and requires hospitals to charge uninsured patients the same discounted rates that insured patients receive.

Its unclear whether practices covered under this agreement include the denial of non-emergency care to patients who have substantial unpaid bills. Ellison said he has heard from a “good number of Allina patients” who were denied care by this practice.

“Denying patients needed care on the basis of medical debt harms every Minnesotan, whether or not they are Allina patients,” he argued.

Health systems also using the practice as a last resort include Mayo Clinic and HealthPartners. A pregnant woman was slated to lose access to care by Glencoe Regional Health in central Minnesota, but donors stepped in to pay her medical debts.

People subjected to aggressive medical billing practices are invited to share their experiences from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Aug. 23 in St. Paul, and on Sept. 12 in Rochester. They also can share their stories at the Attorney General’s State Fair booth, and receive information on the state’s consumer protections.

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