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The state capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

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Among the 26 pieces of legislation that Gov. Glen Youngkin vetoed after they were sent to his desk during this year’s regular General Assembly session is a measure aimed at protecting victims of violent crimes from predatory medical debt collection practices that passed the legislature with bipartisan support. And the governor’s unexpected move left the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, scratching his head.

Creigh Deeds

If signed into law, Senate Bill 297 would grant ​​victims the ability to sue medical debt collectors for predatory practices until the state determines if the victim will get compensation from the Virginia Victims Fund. A similar proposal by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, failed to make it out of committee, but Deeds’s measure cleared the Senate by 24-15 vote in February, followed by approval in the House with amendment by 91-7. A few weeks later, the Senate backed the amended measure by 22-17. 

Deeds said in a news release that Youngkin’s veto was the first time in 23 years that one of his proposals had been outright rejected by a governor – without being notified. “Typically the governor’s office will communicate with the patron of the bill prior to offering an amendment or vetoing a bill. That did not occur here. It is not surprising given the governor’s absolute lack of experience with government.”

Deeds decided to file his proposal after the fallout from the violent protests in Charlottesville in 2017, when white supremacist James Alex Fields, Jr. deliberately drove his car through a crowd of people protesting against the United Right Rally in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. 

In the aftermath, one of the injured individuals submitted a claim to the Virginia Victims Fund, which initially had been created to administer the 1977 Compensating Victims of Crime Act in what the state calls a “compassionate, fair and efficient manner.” The fund strives to treat every victim and survivor with dignity and respect, recognizing the impact that violent crime has upon society. And in 2005, the General Assembly unanimously passed legislation to ensure that victims of violent crimes who had claims pending before the Virginia Victims Fund could not be sent to debt collection. 

But in the case of the Charlottesville victim, that wasn’t enough, because the law passed in 2005 did not include an enforcement mechanism. “The injured victim submitted a claim to the fund, then gave notice to the provider of the pending claim, but was continuously harassed and sent to collections over a medical bill related to the crime,” Deeds said. “The individual filed suit in federal court. The court ruled that since the state law did not provide for a remedy, there could be no remedy under federal law,” Deeds said.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Deeds said that the victim was in the process of trying to buy a home, but because his medical expenses had been sent to collections, “his credit was all screwed up, and it took a few years to fix it.” His legislation sought to fix this problem by providing victims of crime with a way to enforce the law, Deeds said.

Youngkin said in his veto statement that under Deeds’s measure any healthcare provider that undertakes any debt collection activities prior to an award from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund is issued or determined to be noncompensable has committed a prohibited practice under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. 

“This legislation creates unintended consequences that could harm small healthcare providers by creating additional legal liability. The bill could also result in higher health care costs for Virginians,” Youngkin said.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter on Wednesday did not elaborate further on Youngkin’s statement, but Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, who voted against the bill, echoed the governor’s concerns. “This legislation could create new potential lawsuits against healthcare providers who were legally trying to collect unpaid bills,” he said, adding that the legislation had the potential to “increase healthcare costs and make it more difficult for providers to collect after they had provided medical services.”

But Deeds denies that this would happen. “How would it do that? It wouldn’t do either, that wouldn’t make sense,” he said. “We weren’t doing anything earth shattering. It’s not about putting money into people’s pockets but about protecting people from being re-victimized. 

When providers are billing now, they are already breaking the law, we were just providing an enforcement mechanism.”

Deeds also said that he was disappointed that Youngkin “could not find the common courtesy” to let him know he was going to veto the legislation. “That surprised me,” he said. “I know that there were instances when [former Gov. Ralph] Northam did the same thing to me on amendments, but these amendments weren’t of consequence and they didn’t change the character of the bill. I’ve never had anyone do this and not reach out.”

SB297 now heads back to the legislature for the veto session on April 27, where the Republican majority in the House will have to decide whether to take action and override Youngkin’s veto or let it stand.

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.