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: 1084488

Reported Deaths: 17386
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1425562217
Lake705171220
Allen64347862
Hamilton49481481
St. Joseph48135639
Elkhart39011536
Vanderburgh33874494
Tippecanoe29863271
Johnson26876463
Hendricks25548379
Porter24683380
Madison20440444
Clark19785275
Vigo18609308
LaPorte16638260
Monroe16237217
Delaware16230286
Howard16181310
Kosciusko13763162
Hancock12644184
Bartholomew12544188
Warrick11889189
Wayne11794264
Floyd11792225
Grant11484233
Morgan10134188
Boone9576120
Noble8921121
Henry8917163
Marshall8792146
Dearborn875798
Dubois8673138
Shelby7958127
Cass7907126
Lawrence7861182
DeKalb7416106
Jackson738093
Huntington7280107
Gibson6922118
Montgomery6830122
Harrison680696
Knox6779113
Steuben641185
Miami6384106
Whitley631160
Putnam626582
Clinton614176
Wabash5958108
Jasper591991
Jefferson5617102
Ripley540892
Adams527881
Daviess4964116
Scott475978
Wells462998
White459967
Greene458399
Clay452162
Decatur4491109
Jennings434666
Fayette429094
LaGrange413890
Posey398344
Washington380654
Randolph3770107
Fountain364962
Spencer353446
Fulton352270
Starke343672
Sullivan342454
Owen341676
Orange320270
Jay315450
Rush293332
Carroll287037
Franklin283544
Perry281453
Vermillion277557
Parke244930
Tipton244664
Pike241744
Blackford213944
Pulaski203158
Newton176552
Brown169850
Crawford167129
Benton160517
Martin149219
Switzerland143712
Warren131416
Union115416
Ohio90513
Unassigned0581

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1673496

Reported Deaths: 26483
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1757641826
Cuyahoga1629012636
Hamilton1118741528
Montgomery791421387
Summit697231199
Lucas615331017
Butler55597803
Stark521611170
Lorain40661639
Warren35239412
Mahoning34821769
Lake31171493
Clermont30541362
Delaware26553182
Trumbull26366611
Licking26095335
Medina25072351
Fairfield24063287
Greene23957369
Clark21542387
Portage20538280
Richland20465336
Wood19524246
Allen18427320
Miami16950348
Columbiana16385331
Muskingum16346206
Wayne15351304
Tuscarawas14018357
Marion12978194
Erie12350198
Ashtabula12171225
Scioto12166182
Pickaway12009151
Ross11417223
Hancock11151173
Geauga10572174
Lawrence10433171
Belmont10200231
Huron9545155
Jefferson9425225
Union933375
Sandusky8981166
Seneca8639156
Knox8591169
Washington8578156
Athens825096
Darke8215179
Ashland7777147
Auglaize7695115
Shelby7302132
Defiance7174114
Brown7015115
Crawford7010150
Fulton6953111
Logan6818108
Mercer679397
Guernsey677983
Highland6591117
Madison639289
Clinton6361106
Williams623498
Preble6153139
Putnam6054120
Jackson569496
Champaign564786
Perry557179
Coshocton5525103
Ottawa549599
Morrow504464
Fayette481270
Hardin475399
Gallia460278
Pike457876
Van Wert451591
Adams4495109
Henry422776
Hocking398093
Holmes3917137
Wyandot366673
Carroll348978
Paulding317449
Meigs300957
Monroe230860
Noble216147
Morgan208938
Harrison204052
Vinton182037
Unassigned05
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The chilly temperatures and clouds are sticking around Monday with a brief warm up midweek.
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