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Bernie Sanders wants to get rid of medical debt, too

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has made it clear he wants t...

Posted: Sep 6, 2019 1:41 PM

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has made it clear he wants to revolutionize health care by letting people see a doctor for no charge under his "Medicare for All" proposal. Now he wants to take their past-due medical bills off their hands, too.

It's the latest step in the 2020 Democratic candidate's quest to free consumers from what he describes as a "dysfunctional health care system" that ruins families' finances. The proposal, which is still in the works, would relieve consumers of an estimated $81 billion in medical debt and reform a 2005 federal bankruptcy law to make it easier to discharge such liabilities, according to Sanders' campaign.

It's widely accepted that medical debt is a problem, but Sanders has come under fire for some of his claims.

"500,000 people go bankrupt every year because they cannot pay their outrageous medical bills," Sanders told CNN's Brianna Keilar on State of the Union last month.

Sanders' statistic comes from a March editorial in the American Journal of Public Health written by David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler, both doctors and longtime advocates of national, government-run health insurance system. They surveyed bankruptcy filers and found that two-thirds "very much agreed" or "somewhat agreed" that medical expenses or medical problems causing a loss of work contributed to their bankruptcy. That's equivalent to about 530,000 bankruptcies a year, the researchers said.

That figure has been challenged, but the Sanders campaign continued to defend the study on Thursday and called medical debt "an extremely serious issue."

The fact that Americans go bankrupt because they can't afford to pay their medical bills is "immoral" and "unconscionable," said Warren Gunnels, senior adviser to the campaign.

Whatever the number is, there's no doubt that many Americans are burdened by unpaid medical bills.

Some 46 million people had at least one unpaid medical bill that had been sent to a collection agency on their credit report, according to an analysis of 2016 credit report data published in the journal Health Affairs last year. That's about 16% of all consumer credit reports. The average debt was just under $600.

But that isn't an exhaustive list of all medical debt, said Benedic Ippolito, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who co-authored the Health Affairs report with economists from the Federal Reserve Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Many consumers also try to pay off big medical bills by putting them on their credit cards or entering into payment plans with the health care provider.

Nearly a quarter of non-elderly adults had problems paying medical bills, according to a 2018 report from The Commonwealth Fund, a health policy think tank. Even some of those with health insurance struggled, with 18% having issues covering the charge.

Part of the reason is that many Americans now have health insurance plans with high deductibles that they have to satisfy before their coverage kicks in. The average deductible for a single worker was $1,350 last year, up from $433 a decade earlier, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's Employer Health Benefits Survey.

Meanwhile, Americans' income hasn't kept pace, said Sara Collins, vice president for health care coverage and access at The Commonwealth Fund.

Some 14% of non-elderly adults with employer coverage said their out-of-pocket medical expenses equaled 10% or more of their family's income, the fund found. That's up from 6% in 2003. And about one-third said they would not have the money to pay an unexpected $1,000 medical bill within 30 days.

Also, many Americans are plagued by surprise medical bills, which often happens when they are seen by an out-of-network doctor in an emergency situation. Roughly one in six emergency room or in-hospital stays generated at least one out-of-network bill in 2017, according to a Kaiser analysis of claims data from large-employer plans, putting them at risk for an unexpected expense.

"Most families don't have lots of high out-of-pocket costs in a given year," she said. "But if they do, if you have an emergency room visit, most middle-income families just don't have the assets to pay that off."

Several bipartisan bills are working their way through Congress to address this issue.

Many people who have medical debt also have other financial troubles and fall behind on other bills too, Ippolito said. For some, it leads to bankruptcy, but it's hard to determine what was the main cause.

"Many people who went bankrupt had medical debts," he said. "But they also had all sorts of other debts."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 708779

Reported Deaths: 13226
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion966191721
Lake51761946
Allen39224672
Hamilton34549405
St. Joseph34157541
Elkhart27356432
Vanderburgh22081394
Tippecanoe21853212
Porter17935299
Johnson17544374
Hendricks16822310
Clark12697190
Madison12353337
Vigo12219244
Monroe11469166
LaPorte11162204
Delaware10366184
Howard9664211
Kosciusko9134114
Hancock7990139
Bartholomew7893155
Warrick7691155
Floyd7563176
Wayne6906198
Grant6844171
Boone6556100
Morgan6405138
Dubois6085117
Marshall5786108
Dearborn570376
Cass5685102
Henry5579101
Noble542683
Jackson493569
Shelby479495
Lawrence4342118
Gibson429089
Harrison428570
Clinton419753
Montgomery418086
DeKalb411184
Whitley380239
Huntington379880
Miami372865
Knox366689
Steuben365757
Putnam353160
Jasper350946
Wabash347878
Adams338052
Ripley334668
Jefferson313180
White308454
Daviess289499
Wells286481
Decatur279092
Fayette277262
Greene270785
Posey268833
Scott261153
LaGrange253670
Clay253544
Randolph235680
Washington231031
Spencer228031
Jennings225047
Fountain208845
Sullivan207942
Starke204752
Owen192356
Fulton192039
Jay186429
Carroll185920
Perry180736
Orange177853
Rush170724
Vermillion166043
Franklin165635
Tipton161043
Parke144616
Blackford133831
Pike130334
Pulaski113845
Newton104234
Brown100140
Crawford97614
Benton97113
Martin82915
Warren79715
Switzerland7698
Union69910
Ohio55811
Unassigned0408

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1054807

Reported Deaths: 18991
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1225191356
Cuyahoga1074592069
Hamilton783261168
Montgomery50176996
Summit45557909
Lucas40298765
Butler37768570
Stark31513895
Lorain24246473
Warren23910293
Mahoning20946583
Lake20067362
Clermont19459229
Delaware18085130
Licking16149207
Fairfield15757197
Trumbull15627460
Medina14922259
Greene14706236
Clark13660293
Wood12806185
Portage12431196
Allen11352229
Richland11067198
Miami10548214
Muskingum8717127
Wayne8594209
Columbiana8569226
Pickaway8439121
Marion8390135
Tuscarawas8387240
Erie7600154
Hancock6730123
Ross6707146
Geauga6553146
Ashtabula6530165
Scioto6295101
Belmont5634158
Union558447
Lawrence5470102
Jefferson5343147
Huron5314114
Darke5273121
Sandusky5189120
Seneca5139120
Washington5087107
Athens503856
Auglaize476284
Mercer471984
Shelby456590
Knox4397108
Madison423959
Putnam421799
Ashland413488
Fulton410567
Defiance404296
Crawford3883101
Brown386955
Logan374476
Preble371098
Clinton362160
Ottawa357978
Highland347459
Williams328674
Champaign321557
Jackson308551
Guernsey307549
Perry290549
Fayette278048
Morrow275939
Hardin264764
Henry264366
Coshocton259857
Holmes253499
Van Wert239262
Pike233831
Gallia233446
Adams229152
Wyandot227553
Hocking209759
Carroll189447
Paulding168838
Meigs141738
Noble132937
Monroe128941
Morgan106823
Harrison105636
Vinton81614
Unassigned02
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