Medical Debt – A Uniquely American Problem

Op-Ed from State Reps. Arvind Venkat, Bridget Kosierowski, Tarik Khan, Donna Bullock, and Nick Pisciottano

Imagine going to your health care provider and receiving a serious diagnosis. Instead of focusing on your health, you think, “How am I ever going to pay for this?”

Unfortunately, this experience is common. More than 100 million Americans carry medical debt; it’s the cause of nearly 70% of personal bankruptcies. Tragically, it strikes unexpectedly and at the worst moment – when one falls ill or needs medical care.

Medical debt does not exist in other industrialized nations. Only Americans will ever require a GoFundMe for a neighbor stricken with an exorbitant medical bill. Crowdfunding pages for those facing difficult medical challenges, while heartwarming on the surface, are an indictment of our entire health care system. A person’s physical or financial wellbeing should not depend on convincing people to “click here to donate.”

For some, receiving a diagnosis for a treatable disease or an extraordinarily high medical bill can be the equivalent of a death sentence. Too often individuals avoid seeking care in the first place because they are aware of how grossly unaffordable health care is in America. Middle-class folks with exorbitant medical debt are likely to think twice before seeking care for chronic or other serious conditions.

With more than half of American adults accumulating debt due to medical or dental bills in the last five years, it is abundantly clear that medical debt hamstrings the economic mobility of working families across the nation, especially those without insurance or living on low incomes. Millions of indebted Americans report cutting spending on food, clothing and other basic needs, draining their savings, losing their homes and declaring bankruptcy. Additionally, medical debt disproportionally impacts women and people of color – women are more likely than men to carry medical debt, and 69% of Black and 65% of Hispanic adults report having medical debt, compared to 54% of white adults.

We believe that working Pennsylvanians should not have to choose between necessities and receiving medical care, between stifling debt or a preventable death. This uniquely American problem requires a uniquely American solution, and the birthplace of our great nation is the perfect place to start cleaning up this catastrophic mess.

It will take extensive reforms to mold our system into one that does not punish sick patients with debt. But with so many people drowning in medical debt now, Pennsylvanians need a life preserver — stat. To help them quickly, we are introducing legislation to establish the Pennsylvania Medical Debt Repayment Program, which would provide medical debt relief to the most financially vulnerable residents of our Commonwealth.

Our proposed program is modeled on ones that have succeeded at the local level in several U.S. cities and allow for an exponential return on the invested funding. With a relatively modest $5 million investment (representing 0.01% of last year’s state budget) we may be able to clear at least $575 million of the debt burdening Pennsylvania families and holding back the Commonwealth’s economy.

This program would also improve the finances of health care providers and institutions that regularly carry debt on their balance sheet with little likelihood of payment. Such debt affects their ability to deliver on the necessary mission of providing care to those most in need and, critically, results in raising prices for all Pennsylvanians to make up the difference.

Illness and injury do not check your voter registration, and Pennsylvanians of all political affiliations suffer from medical debt. This is not a partisan issue. If you want to help make this program a reality, we urge you to contact your elected officials and ask them to support the creation of the Pennsylvania Medical Debt Repayment Program.

State Rep. Arvind Venkat, MD

State Rep. Nick Pisciottano, CPA

State Rep. Bridget M. Kosierowski, RN

State Rep. Tarik Khan, PhD, CRNP

State Rep. Donna Bullock, JD

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