The weight of medical debt

Kelley Weiss Oct 27, 2011

The weight of medical debt

Kelley Weiss Oct 27, 2011

Tess Vigeland: Last year, about one in four adults under 65 had medical debt, an all-time high for the country. That’s because health care costs continue to rise while people are losing their jobs and health coverage.

Andy Gee: Millions of people, they may not know this, but they are just one accident or one illness away from disaster.

Medical debt dramatically changed this man’s life last year. Kelley Weiss has his story.

Kelley Weiss: A few years ago, things were going well for Andy Gee. He was a self-employed computer programmer in San Francisco. Gee was an active guy, he was always riding his bike or taking dance lessons. Then this…

Andy Gee: I was coming north this way and he was coming west and he hit me right there.

He points to an intersection just a few blocks from his apartment. Last October, he was riding home on his motorcycle and an uninsured driver ran a stop sign and plowed right into him. Gee says, just like that, his life changed. As he lay on the ground, he knew the bone sticking out of his leg was really bad. But through the pain, he thought, “At least I have health insurance.”

Gee: I wasn’t even worried when I first got the bill from the hospital, ’cause I thought, Eh, insurance is going to take care of this.

He was rushed to San Francisco General Hospital and had emergency surgery. He had to stay at the hospital for six days. And he says it all added up.

Gee: I had no idea that I would end up owing this amount of money.

His provider, Blue Cross, said the charges were above the customary rate and it wouldn’t pay all of them. The hospital and physicians’ group wouldn’t budge. This left Gee responsible for the difference, $72,000. He was unemployed and getting over his surgery — and the medical bills just kept coming.

Gee: The first phase, as I’m sure you know, is denial.

He says for months he just pretended nothing was happening. Now he spends hours every day trying to get help on the bills and to stop the collection notices.

Gee: I’ve been feeling just so much anger from this whole thing of, you know, why did I get hit? And then, why are you sending me to collections? Why don’t we try to work something out?

Gee worries his debts will wipe out the savings that he’s been living on and ruin his credit score. He doesn’t sleep well. And, as he’s tossing and turning late at night, he might flip on the TV and find this:

TV commercial: Just imagine if you could find a way to wipe out your medical debt in 12 to 36 months.That’s right! Just 12 to 36 months…

Imagine is right. These types of programs typically charge hefty fees to negotiate discount payments with creditors. Rob Quinlan is a debt counselor with the non-profit ClearPoint Financial Solutions. He says there’s no guarantee these programs will work and you could just lose your money. Still Quinlan acknowledges they’re tempting for many people. Right now, a quarter of his clients are struggling with medical debt and it’s increasing.

Rob Quinlan: Because of the recession and unemployment, certainly, there are those that are having more medical debt and then using what they feel are the options to cover those debts.

Some of those options: Payday loans and credit cards. He says taking on new debt to pay off old debt is a bad move.

Quinlan: Once you have medical debt that is ongoing, it can be a domino effect.

People do turn to credit cards when they’re in this situation. That’s according to Mark Rukavina. He’s with the health advocacy group, The Access Project.

Mark Rukavina: What we’ve seen over the past few years is that people put these medical expenses on their credit cards and often times the problem magnified because of penalties, late fees and interest charged on those bills.

And, Rukavina says medical debt can hit anyone. In fact, about two-thirds of people with it have health insurance. Patients with insurance have to pay more in co-pays these days. And Rukavina says many buy plans that offer little coverage because that’s all they can afford.

Rukavina: Unfortunately, more and more Americans understand this isn’t a problem that’s isolated to those without insurance.

This is something people with medical debt understand too well.

In Sacramento, I’m Kelley Weiss for Marketplace Money.

Brancaccio: This story was produced in collaboration with The California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting. Since the story first aired on KQED Public Radio, the hospital has relented and given Andy Gee a 75-percent discount on his bill. Now he’s working on getting a further discount on the remaining balance of $15,000.

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