Commentary

Americans across the country still feel pain of unanticipated medical bills

Hospitals should abandon aggressive debt-collection practices against patients

May 19, 2022 4:30 am
stethoscope on top of cash

(Getty Images)

It was July 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I felt a sharp pain cut across the inside of my head. Given that we were already three months into lockdown, I didn’t think much of the occasional migraine; after all, I’ve had them my whole life, and they tended to get worse in times of stress.

But as another wave of nausea flooded through me, my knees buckled before I could catch myself on the doorframe, and I collapsed to the floor, unable to stand up. My roommate wasn’t home — neither of us had the privilege to rely on virtual work — and the throbbing was so blinding that I struggled to find my phone. When my mother was finally able to drive me to the emergency room, we waited for three hours to get a bed: It was the only hospital accepting non-COVID walk-ins nearby.

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Eventually the nurse arrived, and without much conversation delivered me an intravenous medication they referred to as a “migraine cocktail.” She forgot to warn me of the adverse effects on patients already suffering from anxiety disorder, and for the next half hour I experienced a panic attack so severe I felt on the verge of death.

That was nearly two years ago. To this day, I’ve been left not only with an incurable case of tinnitus, but also thousands of dollars in medical bills that seem equally as unlikely to disappear.

Nearly half of all Americans currently struggle to cope with medical-related debt.

Tragically, my situation is not unique, and millions of other Americans continue to find themselves caught in an endless web of medical complications even after the initial wound has started to heal. These after-effects, which include toxic practices such as surprise billing and rising out-of-pocket costs for continued treatment, are destroying lives across the nation — with over 66.5% of all reported bankruptcies in 2019 being tied to medical debt, even before the onset of the global pandemic.

Though the federal government has taken steps to help cut down on some of these harmful practices, including by passing the No Surprises Act, which took effect earlier this year, and implementing a new Center for Medicaid Services regulation to require hospitals to publish the price of key services, there’s more to be done. Particularly for those like me and the 35% of Americans pre-pandemic, who were either subject to surprise bills or had loved ones receive surprise bills prior to the enactment of the No Surprises Act in 2022 and the Center for Medicaid Services rule in 2021.

The fact of the matter is that nearly half of all Americans currently struggle to cope with medical-related debt, and we need a way to get back on our feet.

Whether that be ensuring that the NSA is enforced properly and not weakened by the myriad of provider-filed lawsuits that continue to work its way through the court system. Or pushing for hospitals to abandon their aggressive debt-collection practices against patients who make up less than 0.05% of revenue, but push patients toward financial ruin.

There are steps that can be made by both federal and state lawmakers to improve our health care system. Common sense reforms that can make it so that receiving care is not a one way ticket to a lifetime of debt. Coming out of the pandemic, these reforms must be made — otherwise, we won’t be adequately prepared for a future health crisis.

Editor’s note: The author is an intern with Hilltop Public Solutions, which works with health care clients.

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