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Published: Sunday, 6/11/2006

Too late to save the patient

BY MARY-BETH McLAUGHLIN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Maureen Morris admits it didn't take long to determine that Sarah Rapparlie and her husband, John, were headed for bankruptcy.

All she had to do was look over the sheet Mrs. Rapparlie filled out, listing monthly income and living expenses, as well as credit-card debts and medical expenses.

"Her income was $1,300 a month, her living expenses were $1,101 a month, and there was one credit card that required a $350-a-month payment," said Ms. Morris, a counselor in the East Toledo office of Community Credit Counseling Specialists Inc. "I knew there was just no way for a debt management plan."

The two women met last week as part of the pre-filing counseling required under the bankruptcy reform law that took effect in October. Filers need a certificate showing they have attended the counseling.

The idea, said proponents of the reform law, was to ensure that people have done all they can to consolidate and pay bills before seeking court permission to forgive debts or establish a repayment plan.

But, said Gale Crenshaw, director of the counseling agency, "When they come to us now, 99.5 percent don't qualify for a repayment plan. They've tapped out their 401(k)s, have no equity in their home, and usually don't have anyone who can loan them money."

Nearly eight months after the bankruptcy laws tightened - making it tougher and more expensive to seek court protection - local debtors can choose where and how they do pre-filing counseling.

Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Midwest Inc., which is approved to provide pre-filing counseling in eight states, conducted 130 such individual sessions in January and 537 last month. Some of the sessions are by phone.

"It's just grown tremendously," said Richard Call, regional vice president in Columbus. Asked how many filed for bankruptcy, he answered, "I'm not proud of it, but most of them."

He explained: "Most people have the head-in-the-sand mentality. They don't react to problems quick enough, and so when they finally do, they're already in too deep."

The Rapparlies' problems started in April, 2004, when both lost their jobs at the Food Town grocery store on Woodville Road.

While they looked for jobs, which took a year to find, they put their costs of living on credit cards, racking up $20,000 in debt on two cards.

"I knew it was going to come back to me eventually, but I couldn't think of anything else to do," said the 24-year-old Mrs. Rapparlie.

Her problems were compounded by five visits to hospital emergency rooms before a sixth one, last July, determined that she needed gallbladder surgery. She had no insurance.

But when she landed a job a year ago as a health care aide and got on her employer's insurance plan, Mrs. Rapparlie said, she hoped to slowly pay off her bills. Her 35-year-old husband, though, is again looking for work.

In March, she had a three-day hospital stay, costing $6,000, which her insurance didn't cover.

Seeking relief, the Rapparlies contacted a bankruptcy attorney. To comply with the counseling requirement, she contacted Community Credit Counseling Specialists, which had her complete a worksheet.

The sheet, the same one used by the agency to determine a client's repayment plan, asks for information on monthly liv-ing expenses, including rent or mortgage, utilities, groceries, medical and child expenses, and such unsecured debt as credit cards.

"I spread everything out on my living room floor and then said, 'Now what?' " Mrs. Rapparlie said.

The "now what" was the session with Ms. Morris, who found the couple had a total debt of $34,063, roughly 40 percent of it in medical bills.

The counselor prepared a detailed list of what each creditor would expect each month.

Credit card companies, for example, usually demand 2 to 3 percent of the outstanding balance; medical companies want payments within 12 months and often are reluctant to set up repayment plans, she said.

Mrs. Rapparlie said she now knows that Chapter 7 liquidation, in which most of her bills are erased, is her only option. She will file as soon as she has the money for attorney fees.

Pre-filing counseling, Ms. Morris said, helps clients get a grip on their expenses and their debts, something she hopes will deter them from abusing credit in the future.

That's the pledge of Oregon resident Nora Lindquist, a retired hospital cashier who was forced into Chapter 7 liquidation after racking up $32,000 in credit card debts.

"I knew better, but when I didn't have cash on hand, I charged everything: doctor bills, dentist bills, repairs for an old car I had then," she said. At 63, she lives on a small pension and a monthly Social Security check.

"I was using cards to live my life, and you can't do that," she said.

Ms. Lindquist said the pre-filing counseling was helpful because it helped her get a clear view of her financial picture and convinced her of the need to cut up her credit cards.

But attorney Ryan Gerace, who estimates his office has done 15 percent of all bankruptcy filings in northwest Ohio this year, isn't sold on the counseling.

"It seems to have little efficacy and is more of a hoop to jump through," said the managing attorney of Rauser & Associates in Toledo. "And the cost associated with that, an extra $30 to $50, is a lot for people who don't have a lot of money."

A survey conducted for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, from October through March, found the average counseling fee is $38.

People who were counseled during the first five months of the reform law had average debt of $40,673 and average income of $31,255. The average debt for those who sought regular counseling was $20,997.

The biggest single reason consumers find themselves facing bankruptcy is poor money management (41 percent), loss of income (34 percent), and medical expenses (14 percent), the survey found.

Six of 10 bankruptcy counseling sessions took place over the telephone, according to the survey; Internet counseling accounted for 26 percent, and face-to-face 13 percent.

"We have no qualms about the quality of counseling we're providing but the low face-to-face meetings is a head-scratcher," said Nick Jacobs, a spokesman for the foundation based in Silver Spring, Md.

Roxie Snyder, a certified credit counselor in the Findlay office of Northwest Family Services, said the initial counseling review, which usually lasts 90 minutes, is aimed at trying to figure out if debt can be restructured to get someone on a repayment plan.

Once everything is on paper, it's fairly clear what the next step must be, she said.

"We can make suggestions, but we can't say 'This is what you need to do,' " she said.

"You have to let the people determine that on their own, because we don't live in their shoes."

As for Mrs. Rapparlie, she is relieved that she no longer gets calls from creditors seeking payments.

Ms. Morris said she tries to stress the positive to clients.

"We sit and take time and talk to them. I tell them: 'This is not the end of the world,' " she explained. "Just make sure you keep as far away from credit cards as possible."

Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at: mmclaughlin@theblade.com or 419-724-6199.



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