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Sanders Previews Plan to Cancel $81 Billion in Medical Debt and Tackle 'Barbaric' Number of Bankruptcies

In addition to canceling all past-due medical debt, according to his campaign, the forthcoming proposal will also address all future debt

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) participates in a FOX News Town Hall at SteelStacks on April 15, 2019 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Mark Makela / Stringer/Getty Images)

At a healthcare-focused town hall in South Carolina Friday—followed by an official campaign statement Saturday—Democratic presidential primary candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders announced he is working on a plan to cancel Americans' existing past-due medical debt and address future medical debt.

According to CNN:

A woman at the town hall stood up and asked, "Is there anything in your plan that would actually work for people that are drowning right now for their medical debt?"

"We're looking at that right now," Sanders responded. "In another piece of legislation that we're going to be offering we will eliminate medical debt in this country. I mean, just stop and think for a second. Why should people be placed in financial duress? For what crime did you commit? You got a serious illness? That is not what this country should be about."

Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir told CNN on Friday that "Sen. Sanders had previously asked us to pull together a plan to finally end the crisis of medical debt, and when asked directly about it tonight he was honest and candid in previewing his thinking on this important matter."

Following the town hall, video of the response from presidential hopeful and Independent senator from Vermont circulated online.

"In the United States of America, your financial life and future should not be destroyed because you or a member of your family gets sick," Sanders added in a statement Saturday. "That is unacceptable."

"I am sick and tired of seeing over 500,000 Americans declare bankruptcy each year because they cannot pay off the outrageous cost of a medical emergency or a hospital stay," he said, repeating a statistic that has caused some controversy this week. "In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, 42 percent of Americans should not be losing their entire life savings two years after being diagnosed with cancer."

The Sanders presidential campaign, in its statement, detailed the key priorities of his proposal, which will be released sometime in the next month:

  • Cancel the $81 billion in existing past-due medical debt. Under this plan, the federal government will negotiate and pay off past-due medical bills in collections that have been reported to credit agencies.
  • Repeal the worst elements of the disastrous 2005 bankruptcy reform bill, and allow other existing and future medical debt to be discharged.
  • Make sure that no one's credit score is negatively impacted by unpaid medical bills.

"The 2005 bankruptcy reform bill written by Wall Street made it much more difficult to discharge medical debt by imposing strict means tests and eliminated fundamental consumer protections for the American people," the campaign noted. "It also trapped families with medical debt in long-term poverty, mandated that they pay for credit counseling before filing for bankruptcy, and increased the need for expensive legal services when filing a case for medical bankruptcy."

A longtime single-payer advocate and lead sponsor of the Medicare for All Act of 2019 in the Senate, Sanders has made addressing the nation's high healthcare costs a top issue in his bid to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in the 2020 race.

Adam Gaffney, president of the advocacy group Physicians for a National Health Program, tied the senator's single-payer healthcare legislation to his forthcoming medical debt proposal, tweeting in response to a report on the debt plan Saturday: "Right on. Of course, we wouldn't have medical debt to begin with under Medicare for All—no medical bills at all, in fact."

This post has been updated with comment from Adam Gaffney.

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