Washington Lawmakers Must Prioritize Medical Debt Transparency This Session

Tony, a grandfather and retired truck-driver from Roy, WA., testified about his and his daughter’s experience with medical debt at the public hearing for SHB 1531 on February 6, 2019. We worked with him to write this op-ed about the importance of legislation that addresses medical debt collection, and his call for lawmakers to vote in favor of SHB 1531. Take action with us– email your legislators and urge them to pass SHB 1531!

In my household, medical debt has become something of a family affair. Both my daughter and I have chronic medical conditions that have been expensive to treat and maintain. Although we both work hard to stay on top of our medical bills, the sheer expense of caring for chronic conditions has left our family in thousands of dollars of debt. And I know that we’re not alone in experiencing this. According to RIP Medical Debt, an advocacy and non-profit organization that tackles medical debt in the United States, 8.5% of Washingtonians have medical debt, totaling more than $700 million.

8.5% of Washington’s population has outstanding medical debt, totaling over 700 million dollars. (photo by rawpixel via unsplash.com)

For my family, medical debt is not just a financial stress for us, but it is also threatening our ability to keep our home. I believe that it’s our responsibility as a society to help people when they’ve fallen on hard times— especially when it’s something that is out of their control, like a medical condition.

I’ve always considered myself a person who was economically self-sufficient, a person who could pull his own weight, until chronic degenerative back conditions left me unable to work. I try to get by on my Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) check, but the amount I receive, a little over a thousand dollars a month, never goes quite far enough to cover monthly household expenses— such as food costs, electric bills, or gas for the car. Paying for my doctor’s appointment co-pays and procedures (which are only partially covered by my insurance) with only my SSDI check is very difficult. More often than not I’m forced to have the medical providers bill me for co-pays normally due at the time of visit, as I frequently don’t have the cash on hand. On top of all this, the financial stress that my medical debt has caused has made it very difficult for me to pay property taxes on my home. I am now also dealing with the possibility of foreclosure and losing my home.

As difficult as it is to deal with my own medical condition and the resulting debt, it is even harder to watch my daughter struggle with a situation so similar to my own. She is only 27 years old, but she has already dealt with numerous chronic health conditions, causing her to rack up substantial medical bills. She is currently 8 months pregnant with her second child. Both she and her husband work, but the medical costs for her obstetrician and for her pre-existing health conditions are so expensive that they can’t afford to make payments and meet their basic needs. To make matters worse, my daughter often skips out on doctor’s visits for her pre-existing conditions, because she simply cannot afford them. As her father, it is both heartbreaking and nerve-wracking to see her forego this critical care.   

It’s also heartbreaking to know that my daughter’s situation is not unique. According to a 2017 study by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, people who can’t afford to pay their medical debts start to cut back on other basic necessities: 73% cut back on food, clothes and basic needs; 19% choose not to fill needed prescriptions; and 15% choose to not get needed medical services.

People should not lose their homes or forego medical care because they cannot afford it. This legislative session, our state lawmakers – led by Representative Laurie Jinkins and Senator David Frockt – are tackling this important issue with House Bill 1531. I strongly support this bill and urge lawmakers to do the same. House Bill 1531 would help regulate the collections process of medical debt in our state, making the process of repaying debt easier and more transparent. It would also mandate that collectors provide information and resources relating to Charity Care, a program that allows eligible low-income patients to be treated for free or at reduce rates. This portion of the bill in particular would have helped both my daughter and me immensely, as we both only recently found out about the Charity Care program after years of paying full price for our medical care.

Receiving the medical care you need to stay alive and stay healthy is a human right. Paying for that care should not create a greater burden. Washington lawmakers, please pass House Bill 1531. The health of our state is on the line.

*Since the writing of this op-ed, Tony received word that he will be able to establish a payment plan that will help him afford the property taxes on his home. He is no longer in danger of losing his family home. 

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