The Idaho news media have provided some coverage of the clash between Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot and Medical Recovery Services, but haven’t focused in on the possible impact on GOP politics in Idaho.
Based in Idaho Falls, MRS collects debt for physicians and other medical service providers. MRS uses the law firm of Smith Driscoll & Associates to do its legal work, mostly filing thousands of lawsuits against Idaho medical debtors. That law firm’s most prominent attorney is conservative activist Bryan Smith and much of the MRS work is done by State Rep. Bryan Zollinger.
What got VanderSloot going was when MRS obtained a $294 judgment against an employee of his company, Melaleuca, and then sought to tack on nearly $6,000 in attorney fees and costs. He earlier this year formed an organization known as Idaho Medical Debt to challenge aggressive medical debt collection and he and his wife Belinda have committed $1 million toward the effort. He described this as: “We will not be helping people avoid paying legitimate bills. But we are defending people from unscrupulous, unreasonable, or unnecessary attorney fees.”
Since then Idaho Medical Debt has been contacted by hundreds of Idahoans and has taken on over 100 cases with a primary goal of shaving off what are claimed to be egregious fees charged by MRS and Smith Driscoll. The massive regional law firm of Snell & Wilmer has been hired to help debtors. On Feb. 6, 2020, 51 jury trials are set to begin in Bonneville County, expected to take most of the year
MRS struck back after the VanderSloots’ most recent contribution, stating through a spokesman: “This is more laughable nonsense from Frank VanderSloot.”
VanderSloot is also pushing the 2020 Idaho Legislature to standardize Idaho medical billing and restrict attorney fees for collection.
MRS has been heavily criticized in local social media with a multitude of postings by individuals detailing hyper-aggressive collection efforts.
Last week VanderSloot did an interview with KID Newsradio’s Neal Larson where he listed the three owners of MRS as Ned Zollinger (Bryan Zollinger’s father), Bryan Smith and Doyle Beck. Smith in the recent past has denied being an owner (though he was the founder, according to a 2014 Post Register story).
This clash could have widespread ramifications on Idaho politics. VanderSloot and Melaleuca are significant political contributors both nationally and in Idaho. Frank VanderSloot is estimated to be worth more than $4 billion.
Idaho Falls businessman Doyle Beck and Bryan Smith are key figures in funding the political activities of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and affiliated entities like Idahoans Fighting Corruption, which was behind the controversial direct mail targeting Steve Yates, former GOP chair, when he ran for lieutenant governor in 2018. They also have been behind the effort to turn Idaho Legislature hard right. Melaleuca joining with Idaho’s business community could be a bulwark against their efforts as Beck and Smith could never match the deep pockets.
Smith is also the Second Vice Chair of the Idaho Republican Party. He filed the lawsuit opposing Medicaid expansion and made an unsuccessful argument to the Idaho Supreme Court. His ability to participate is being undermined by his fight with VanderSloot.
Ironically, Beck, Smith and VanderSloot were political allies as recently as 2017 when they jointly targeted Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper (I helped her). That effort backfired and Casper took 62% of the vote.
Rep. Zollinger may have difficulty winning re-election as he has been connected tightly to MRS’ collection efforts. Opposition by Melaleuca, a large local employer, could be a deadly blow,
Beck and Smith are pushing a January change in Idaho’s GOP rules to eliminate the governor’s ability to fill legislative vacancies by having local party committees provide only a single name rather than the current three. VanderSloot and/or Melaleuca’s opposition could be determinative.
Keep an eye on all these players in areas besides medical debt collection.