SLC legislators approve writing off $230,000 in bad debt from Community Services Department
BY ANDY GARDNER
North Country This Week
CANTON -- A bill to write off Community Services Department bad debt from three years ago passed the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators, with three dissenting no votes.
The resolution, when introduced at the legislature’s Operations Committee meeting in August, sparked a debate among lawmakers over whether or not they can improve their collections.The Monday, Sept. 14 resolution writes off $230,761 in bad debt from 2017. It passed with no debate.
The no votes came from legislators Joe Lightfoot, Kevin Acres and Rita Curran, all Republicans. The other 12 legislators, which included several of their GOP colleagues, voted yes.
Jay Ulrich, St. Lawrence County Community Services director, told the Operations Committee last month that the debts are from people not paying bills, and part of the problem is collections.
“I think, yes, there certainly were problems with billing that we’ve tried to correct over the years and we’ve gotten better at that, but certainly in 2017 there were some ongoing issues that were not being addressed,” Ulrich said at the committee meeting. He took his current position during the year in question -- 2017.
“I think I’ve seen enough background to know in the space of a couple of years we’ve left on the table more than a million dollars and who knows what [2018-2020] is going to bring, even though it’s on the downhill slide,” Lightfoot said at the time in response.
Ulrich in August said the county is a “provider of last resort,” meaning that they don’t turn away patients who are uninsured, or can’t get their insurance to cover their treatment. He pointed to Medicare as an example, which he said doesn’t cover chemical dependency treatment. However, he pointed out that the county will still attempt to collect the debts, even though the bad debt was written off.
Legislator John Burke, R-Norfolk, spoke in defense of Ulrich at the August committee meeting, and also pointed to collection agencies that are contracted by the county, noting that even they don’t expect to recover 100% of the debts they chase.
“I think it’s important to remember that … the entity we contract with to do our billing, their gold standard was 90%. There is kind of an inherent loss that even the best providers have to take and have to write off,” said Burke, adding that “the most complicated billing … is mental health and substance abuse.”
“We were after Jay for productivity. It certainly looks like he delivered that. We have to be very careful not to ask him to deliver what’s unreasonable to produce,” Burke said. “We need to be very careful in passing judgment when we don’t know all of the background.”