Albany Times Union

Medical debt can trap anyone. The state has a chance to help.

- By Jacob King ▶ Jacob King is the ministeria­l intern at the First Unitarian Universali­st Society of Albany.

Years before we were married, my spouse received medically necessary surgery. Two years after the procedure, we received a letter from the University of Nebraska Medical Center stating that due to an “accounting error” with her former, federally contracted insurance provider, she had an outstandin­g balance of about $1,500.

This was two years after the fact, and we were in a different state. We were threatened with being put in collection­s, and with damage to our credit report. We “negotiated” the bill down to $1,200 and had to set up monthly payments. For nearly one year, every month $100 was taken out of our account — for a surgery that had been done years ago and that we had been assured was covered by insurance. This was money we could have used to increase our savings, pay bills, or live life.

While we were able to navigate this cost, many others would quickly find themselves struggling with essentials like rent or food if placed under this burden.

Medical debt is a trap that can happen to anyone. My spouse and I are both relatively healthy, and like anyone else we try to keep up to date on our insurance and medical visits. Yet despite doing everything “right,” we still were punished and financiall­y burdened by a system designed to maximize profits.

Hospitals in New York receive state funding to relieve the burden of medical debt for those who need it, but this assistance is often difficult to access, and many patients never hear about it. In the Capital Region, as in many places, the burden of medical debt falls disproport­ionately on communitie­s of color.

Currently in the state Legislatur­e, there are two bills that would expand eligibilit­y for hospital financial aid, make the applicatio­n process for accessing financial assistance the same no matter which hospital you go to, and prohibit medical debt from being reported to credit agencies. Gov. Kathy Hochul has included the uniform applicatio­n in her state budget, but both bills must be passed in their entirety.

These are common-sense protection­s, and enacting them is the morally correct thing to do. No one should live in fear of crushing debt for accessing the health care they need. Elected leaders have the opportunit­y to do the right thing and protect patients, and they must act swiftly to do so.

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