The Cure for Medical Debt, Colltalers
It’s Memorial Day in the U.S., and Americans of all nationalities will likely hear about our troops’ vitality and our debt to them, along parades and somber recollections. Plus BBQs. One thing we’ll hardly talk about, though: bringing the troops home.
Another type of debt also elicits a similar quagmire: although more Americans now have healthcare coverage than a decade ago, since 2013, their mounting medical bills have become the main driver behind alarmingly high rates of individual bankruptcies.
We’re so used to the official narrative about the heroics of military service, often used to justify our state of permanent war, that we forget how narrow has become the slice of the U.S. population that actually sacrifices itself and wages war on our behalf.
You’ve read here about this disconnect a few times before, and it’s likely that you’ll be hearing about it again throughout the day. If anything, this holiday does give Americans pause to read and discuss its combatants, and their distant war cries.
But while it’s been noted the discrepancy between Congress’s eagerness to send troops into harm’s way, and its indifference once they return, wounded and broken, there’s little doubt that in at least one particular, they still have an edge over the rest of the population: the V.A., despite underfunding and appalling bureaucracy, is better than most healthcare plans available to civilians.
Even though more Americans have health insurance now than before, thanks to the Obamacare, the plan’s main, and possibly fatal, flaw is that it made us all hooked to a for-profit, insurance-company driven system that remains out of reach to millions.
Rather than proposing a form of so-called single payer system, which like Medicare and the V.A. itself, eliminates the insurers’ role as arbiters of care and cost, President Obama chose to let them in, hoping to ease the Affordable Care Act into congressional approval. But industry support to Obamacare has only made the president’s signature legislation vulnerable and unfulfilled.
Health care spending did slow down with the plan, and we’re unlikely to top the almost $3 trillion Americans spent in 2012 in medical bills. However, now that it is in its second year, one in four people remains uninsured, while almost two million are expected to file for bankruptcy this year. They simply can’t keep up with premiums and deductibles of their coverage.
The focus of both the administration and Congress has been so far to mitigate the impact of medical debt on a person’s credit worthiness, which can further add up to their financial burden. The Medical Relief bill, currently being considered by Congress, is just such an example. But that seems like a palliative measure since it doesn’t address the main cause of rising medical costs.
Treating exorbitant cost for medicines and therapies as a necessary evil to extend health insurance to a larger group of people hasn’t even improved the quality of care, which in the U.S. lags far behind other industrialized nations.
Plus such a ‘relief’ would come only to a minority of lucky eligible patients, not an across the board measure to benefit everyone under the Obamacare. Lastly, it would stay clear of the very merit of such debt, or why coverage is not, well, affordable.
Despite complains, the insurance industry has been by far the great beneficiary of the president’s plan, and continues to profit from the larger number of patients turned into consumers with no other way to access medical care but through them. Thus the debt.
But it may be time to ask: at what point such debt is declared ‘uncollectible’ and written off on the corporations’ balance sheets? And why they continue pursuing payment, via intimidating debt collection agencies, when it is already written off?
For one of the ironies, or by-products, of treating medical care as a commodity is that often debt can’t be collected. That happens despite all rigors of bankruptcy laws, which allow collectors to pursue payment even from relatives, if the debtor is deceased.
When debt can’t be collected, corporations declared it on their balance sheets and move on, selling its nominal price for pennies on the dollar. Like hyenas, collector agencies are eager to purchase and repurchase the debt and go after the debtor.
Americans are pretty much on their own to face these agencies, whose industry has also profited handsomely from the status quo, hence the increased number of bankruptcies. Just as with student debt, it’s been independent organizations and groups that have taken the lead in proposing alternatives and radical changes to the system, only way to rescue those buried in medical bills.
One such group is the non-profit Rolling Jubilee, a splinter group of sorts from the Occupy Wall Street movement, founded with the mission of buying and eliminating medical debt. Such straightforward goal has already produced results way more effective than anything the Obama administration, or Congress, for that matter, has put on the table, as a form a medical debt relief.
An initial fundraising campaign has raised about $600,000, which for under a nickel on the dollar, translates to over $11 million in direct relief. The big difference from collectors, though, is that Rolling Jubilee buys the debt and immediately extinguishes it.
That’s an astonishingly simple way to effectively deal with consumer medical debt, as it is with student debt too. Why it hasn’t found a sympathetic ear in Washington says a lot about the compromising position most politicians and elected officials are, and how their ties to insurers prevent them from being on the side of Americans being suffocated by debt.
Recently, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has announced that all three major U.S. credit reporting agencies have agreed to change the way they register medical debt on someone’s report, a measure received with moderate approval.
For even though Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, agreed not to add delinquent medical bills under 180 days of their due date, they are not distinguishable from any other unpaid bills one may have. Which means that missing the credit card payment bill is equivalent to not being able to afford a medicine crucial for the person to function, and presumably be able to work to pay bills.
Rolling Jubilee cites other ‘devilish details,’ such as credit scores still being negatively affected by old past dues, for instance. But its main aim is to eliminate debt, instead of allowing a successive number of parties to profit from it, while the debtor sinks further. While they profit, unpaid bills are having an even worst effect on Americans: raising the number of suicides.
So, it’s true that Americans are deeply indebted to the high sacrifices U.S. troops have been paying for way too long, because of unconscious politics and self-serving public servants. And today is as good as any day to meditate on such sad reality.
But there’s also an unpaid debt, of a different nature, that big corporations owe the American people, which is the moral obligation of stopping profiting from human misery. And as we see it, there are a lot that they can do, without curtailing their profits.
Whether they will, it’s a matter of how much pressure can we put them under. While that doesn’t happen, there’s something anyone can do to alleviate the debt burden over the shoulders of those who can least afford it: support and contribute to organizations aimed at eliminating consumer debt, be it medical or student. And today is a good a day as any to start.
Yes, Washington should be playing a bigger role in consumer debt relief, rather than supporting the growth of insurers and debt collectors. But when was the last time we got something without demanding it and doing our own part? Enjoy May’s last week. WC