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Medical Debt: Help Available for Struggling Ohioans

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 Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Assistant Managing Editor

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Thursday, October 27, 2022   

Medical costs are a concern for many people in Ohio, but efforts are under way to alleviate some of the financial burdens associated with health care.

An estimated one in ten adults in the U.S. have medical debt, including nearly three million who owe more than $10,000.

Steven Wagner, executive director of the Universal Healthcare Action Network of Ohio, explained medical debt often happens because a treatment is not expected or cannot be avoided.

"So it's not this issue of people not saving well or being irresponsible with their finances," Wagner emphasized. "A significant portion of all communities don't have the ability to pay a $1,000 bill if it's a big surprise bill."

The Hospital Care Assurance Program helps pay bills for Ohioans who earn less than the federal poverty limit. And those who earn more can apply for hospital financial assistance programs required under the Affordable Care Act.

Wagner encouraged patients to ask for copies of financial-assistance policies as soon as a bill arrives, or prior to care when possible. October is Health Literacy Month and the Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio offers assistance with applying for and understanding hospital assistance policies.

Wagner noted hospitals have some flexibility about how generous the assistance is they can provide.

"Hospitals in Ohio have gone all the way up to 400% of the federal poverty limit in terms of who they'll provide assistance to," Wagner observed. "Hospitals sometimes are also doing that for both insured and uninsured people."

Michele Grim, a Toledo city councilwoman, is proposing a measure to use American Rescue Plan Act dollars to help relieve up to $200 million in medical debt for eligible residents.

Grim has heard stories from constituents who have avoided care because they cannot afford their medical bills.

"Medical debt prevents people from putting food on the table, it prevents people from paying the rent, paying their mortgage, paying their utilities," Grim pointed out. "It also exacerbates evictions. So to relieve medical debt, that's really gonna help the people in our community recover economically."

Grim anticipates a vote on the measure Nov. 9, which is modeled after a similar initiative passed in Illinois' Cook County.

About three in four voters recently polled ranked health care costs as a greater concern than the cost of housing, child care and college.

Disclosure: The Universal Healthcare Action Network of Ohio contributes to our fund for reporting on Consumer Issues, Health Issues, Human Rights/Racial Justice, and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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