activists call for an end to medical debt

Activists call for an end to medical debt outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on September 13, 2023.

(Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Community Catalyst)

Sanders, Khanna Lead Push to Tackle Medical Debt Crushing US Workers

"The time has come to cancel all medical debt and guarantee healthcare to all as a human right, not a privilege," said Sen. Bernie Sanders.

A quartet of progressive U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday introduced bicameral legislation "to eliminate all $220 billion in medical debt held by millions of Americans, wipe it from credit reports, and drastically limit the accrual of future medical debt."

The Medical Debt Cancellation Act—introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Sen. Jeff Merkely (D-Ore.), and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—is a four-point plan for ending the medical debt that's crushing so many working-class Americans.

"Our current healthcare system is bankrupting Americans."

"The medical debt crisis has exploded in recent years, decimating Americans' bank accounts and deterring them from seeking healthcare," Sanders' office said in a statement. "Among all working-age adults in the United States, an estimated 27% are currently carrying medical debt of more than $500, and 15% have medical debt loads of $2,000 or more."

If passed, the Medical Debt Cancellation Act would:

  • Amend the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, making it illegal to collect medical debt incurred prior to the bill's enactment and creating a private right of action for patients;
  • Amend the Fair Consumer Credit Reporting Act, effectively wiping medical debt from credit reports by preventing credit reporting agencies from reporting information related to debt that arose from medical expenses;
  • Create a grant program within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to cancel medical debt, prioritizing low-resource providers and vulnerable populations; and
  • Amend the Public Health Service Act, updating billing and debt collection requirements to limit the potential for future debt to be incurred.

"This is the United States of America, the richest country in the history of the world," said Sanders. "People in our country should not be going bankrupt because they got cancer and could not afford to pay their medical bills. No one in America should face financial ruin because of the outrageous cost of an unexpected medical emergency or a hospital stay."

But many do. In 2018 alone, 8 million people in the U.S. were driven into poverty due to medical debt. According to Sanders' office, nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults say they are worried about unexpected medical bills and nearly 1 in 4 people report having foregone medical treatment over cost concerns—including almost 20% of adults covered by health insurance.

"The time has come to cancel all medical debt and guarantee healthcare to all as a human right, not a privilege," said Sanders, a longtime proponent for Medicare for All in the only industrialized nation without universal coverage.

Khanna lamented that "our current healthcare system is bankrupting Americans."

"I've heard heartbreaking stories from constituents who have skipped doctor's appointments due to cost, who have lost loved ones because they couldn't afford their medication, and who aren't able to buy a house or get a job because of crippling medical debt," the congressman said.

"I'm so proud to join Sen. Sanders to cancel medical debt, wipe it from credit reports, and reform our system going forward," he added. "This bill would transform the lives of millions of Americans and I couldn't ask for a better partner in the fight."

This isn't Congress' first attempt to address the issue of medical debt. Last year, Tlaib introduced the Restoring Unfairly Impaired Credit and Protecting Consumers Act, which would reduce the amount of time that negative information remains on a credit report from seven years to four and compel reporting agencies to erase adverse data stemming from "predatory loans and fraudulent activity."

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