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Lawmakers rally for medical debt relief

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(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania lawmakers rallied at the Capitol on Tuesday to erase outstanding medical debts for thousands of residents.

House Bill 78 creates a new program in the Department of Health that would discharge debt for residents living at-or-below 400% of the federal poverty level – or up to $60,240 for a single person and $124,800 for a family of four.

Obligations totaling 5% or more of a person’s income would also qualify under the program.

“The sad reality is that in Pennsylvania there are over a million people who have medical debt in collections,” said Rep. Tarik Khan, D-Philadelphia, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

Khan, a nurse practitioner, noted that the issue of medical debt is a “hard conversation to have” with most patients. One in two Pennsylvanians have medical debt, while one in three struggle to pay their medical bills. One out of every two has delayed medical care because of their debt.

“Medical debts do not discriminate,” said Rep. Bridget Kosierowski, D-Scranton, who is also a nurse. She described seeing patients come in and out of the operating room with diseases that could have been managed or even prevented if patients hadn’t been avoiding care because of their existing debt.

Khan also noted that nearly 60% of people with medical debt do have insurance.

Maggie Lynn, a Springfield resident, said during Tuesday’s news conference that the obligations reached every corner of her life.

“My medically induced financial instability had a ripple effect which trickled down to impact my familial relationships as I found myself increasingly reliant on their support,” she said.

After living with anxiety under the constant stress of phone calls and letters from debt collectors, Lynn found herself in a car accident that broke both her legs. When she was flown to a specialty hospital to preserve the use of her left arm, her biggest concern was the cost.

Lynn joked that a friend texted her that morning telling her to “break a leg” at the press conference before adding, “Or don’t. You can’t afford it.”

Medical debt is sold at the cost of 1 cent on the dollar. For collectors, this means they can buy the debt cheaply and then demand repayment with interest. House Bill 78 would allow the state to be able to buy debt itself. Gov. Josh Shapiro’s plan to buy $4 million in debt could discharge $400 million for residents across the state.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Arvend Venkat, D-Pittsburgh, an ER physician, has seen this kind of program work. In Pittsburgh, the city council was able to eliminate $115 million in debt for over 24,000 residents with a $1 million investment.

The proposal passed the House on a vote of 114-89 in June and awaits consideration in the Senate.

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