A Dunedin couple who are struggling to make ends meet are ‘disgusted’ that a debt collection agency demanded immediate payment for a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) bill for which they spent months trying to arrange an installment plan.
Vanessa Dale traveled to the UK for family reasons when the MIQ system was still in place and stayed longer than planned after struggling to get an MIQ room, her husband Theo Dale has said.
“We expected this to happen but obviously as she was stuck there longer than we thought we only had one income so we started to fall behind in our bills.”
When Vanessa returned, the couple contacted the MIQ team at the Department for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to say they could not pay the $1600 bill straight away, but that would be happy to repay it in installments as soon as they were in the financial position to do so.
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In a March 2022 email, the Dales said they were “still recovering from the financial burden that was inflicted on (them) by Vanessa’s inability to return to the country” as planned.
They explained that they still owed money for credit card debt and childcare and electricity bills incurred while he was away.
Three days later, MBIE’s Fees and MIQ Waivers team emailed the couple to say that an installment plan could be granted if they could demonstrate that they would suffer financial hardship if they paid their bill in one go.
They were asked to complete and return an application form along with proof of their finances, such as a statement of their financial situation and bank statements, but Dale said the form was not attached to the e -mail.
“So I sent another email saying ‘Hey, that form wasn’t attached, so can someone send us the form? “. And that was the last email we got until we got a letter from the debt collection agency saying ‘boom, pay us now.’
Dale said they continued to email MBIE about setting up an installment plan and sent them a statement of their financial situation and details of loans and card debts loan, but they had never been able to arrange one.
“Right from the start, we said to ourselves, ‘We can’t afford to pay right away. We’ve had these bills and we’re struggling to live each week. But we want to put in place an installment arrangement in the near future once we get back on our feet. But getting answers from them was next to impossible… All along we just had the sleight of hand and no communication.
Saying they are now able to start paying off their MIQ debt, Dale said they found it stressful and “very humiliating” to be sued by debt collectors.
MBIE was unable to respond to questions about the Dales’ case in a timely manner, but a ministry spokesperson said collecting monies owed for stays at MIQ “is taken very seriously.”
“Basically it’s taxpayers’ money and people should be paying back what they owe.”
The ministry may grant full or partial waivers of MIQ fees in the event of financial hardship or other special circumstances, the spokesperson said.
“MIQ sends out reminders ahead of the due date, which include details on how to pay, how to request an installment plan and what to do if the person feels they are not responsible. or is exempt. After the due date, a new letter will be sent requesting payment. This letter also contains details on how to request an installment plan.
If the person does not pay the fee or make contact, the case may be referred to a debt collection agency, the spokesperson said.
As of August 15, MBIE was expecting $32.5 million in overdue unpaid MIQ bills, the ministry’s website says. More than 5,500 invoices totaling $16.3 million were over 90 days overdue.
The department said it sent 2,943 invoices worth $10.05 million to a debt collection agency. Of this amount, $3.9 million had been paid or is expected to be paid in installments, while $1.8 million was awaiting customer information or was credited due to an error.
More than 10,000 of the 19,554 fee waiver requests received as of August 15 had been approved; 5,489 had been refused and 192 were in progress, the ministry said.