Unpayable medical debt is a pre-existing condition

Unpayable medical debt is a pre-existing condition
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Congress is preoccupied with battling over health care costs and solutions. But there is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed before it crafts any legislation: $1 Trillion in past un-payable medical debt owed by Americans. Republicans and Democrats must work together to make it disappear.

None of the solutions being proposed in Congress are structured to rescue millions of Americans from an overhang in medical debt that grows at the rate of billions of dollars a year. It is pre-existing, it is huge—and it demands immediate attention.

One trillion dollars. That’s what our charity, RIP Medical Debt, determines to be the amount of uncollected bills presently filling dusty hospital filing cabinets or in the more active clutches of medical debt buyers and collection agencies. It is “zombie debt” that grows at the rate of $60 billion annually.

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It strikes every segment of society:

  1. One-third of all Go-Fund-Me campaigns are pleas for help in meeting medical bills; $650M in 2018 alone.
  1. Medical debt destroys the financial stability of large segments of America’s most vulnerable communities in every state: their sick, elderly and poor.
  1. Medical debt particularly impacts the middle class, driving many families who are barely getting by into poverty.
  1. Even veterans are not safe from the bill collector, collectively shouldering over $6 billion in ambulance and emergency room debt alone, which the Department of Veterans Affairs has to date declined to pay.
  1. Negative credit marks left by unpaid medical bills ensures the victim will face higher costs for loans, be declined credit, be refused an apartment rental or even get a job.

This just isn’t right.

Not addressing unpaid medical debt in all of its ramifications, and providing its cure, will be a grave mistake—literally, for some unfortunates.

People are dying because they cannot afford insulin or are victims of “deaths of despair.” There is a link between suicide and a lack of access to health care and accompanying financial struggles.

It’s time to do something both sensible and radical. Let’s forgive unpayable medical debt.

Although that sounds a bit like a moon shot, unless something equally as sweeping is conjured up, it is worthy of consideration. To start, Congress must write legislation to allow for a wholesale forgiveness of medical debt for those proven to be unable to pay off this burden. There should be no strings attached.  

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Something similar is already happening at the grass roots level. Faith-based communities are forgiving people’s medical bills, to the point that one publication saluted this as “An Awesome Trend.” Unions have pitched in, and even high school students in Florida and New York have taken a bite out of debt.

The idea has even caught the eyes of four top university economists. For two years this team has been laboring to create an economic impact study of more than 20,000 people afflicted with medical debt to determine what it means to relieve that debt. Could it be that medical debt is, in itself, a social determinant of poverty, or even of continuing bad health itself?

With one out of four Americans presently in collection, and with 50 percent of all debt being medical, we don’t need to wait for their findings. We need action.

Abolish unpaid and unpayable medical debt. For good.

Jerry Ashton is a 40-year veteran of the credit and collections industry. He has co-authored two books on health care debt, most recently “End Medical Debt: Curing America’s $1Trillion Unpayable Healthcare Debt.” He is co-founder of the national charity, RIP Medical Debt.