WATCH: The State of Medical Debt in the U.S.

The growing problem of medical debt in America has garnered national attention, generating a larger discussion of its drivers and consequences. To help us understand how we got here and where to go next, the Lown Institute invited some of those working on the frontlines of this issue to participate in a multi-panel, virtual event:

  • Alexandra Spratt, Director of Health Care, Arnold Ventures
  • Berneta Haynes, Senior Attorney, National Consumer Law Center
  • Christopher W. Goodman, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, USC
  • Elisabeth Benjamin, Vice President of Health Initiatives, Community Service Society of New York
  • Lisa Edmonds, Patient representative
  • Noam Levey, Senior Correspondent, KFF Health News
  • Paula Smith, MPH, Senior Data Scientist, Lown Institute
  • Ruth Landé, Vice President, Provider Relations, Undue Medical Debt
  • Sara Rosenbaum, JD, Professor Emerita, Health Law and Policy, School of Public Health, GWU
  • Vikas Saini, MD, President, Lown Institute

Medical debt has reached epidemic levels in the United States, impacting millions of Americans and creating barriers to good health. “This is a mammoth problem that is seriously impairing the mental health, the physical health, and the productivity of our country”, said Dr. Vikas Saini, President of the Lown Institute.

Former hospital chaplain Lisa Edmonds was one of those patients who struggled with medical debt, facing hundreds of thousands in medical bills after a mental health crisis. 

“It’s devastating to think you could lose your home, you could lose everything you have…”

Lisa Edmonds, Patient representative

To better understand how hospitals can alleviate or exacerbate medical debt, the Lown Institute is undertaking an ambitious project, compiling data from billing and collection policies at 2,500 hospitals. Lown Institute senior data scientist Paula Smith shared some of the results from the preliminary data set, highlighting the variation in policies among hospitals in the same region. (Download our preliminary data set now!)

“We’ve seen [hospitals] where ownership of recreational vehicles like RVs and jet skis will bar a patient from financial assistance.”

Paula Smith, Senior Data Scientist, Lown Institute

Panelists also highlighted how states are taking action to reduce medical debt, including placing income-based restrictions on charges, eliminating extraordinary collections actions like wage garnishments and placing liens on homes, and additional financial assistance requirements.

At the same time, panelists asserted the importance of fundamental system changes like implementing single-payer healthcare and cost controls.  

“We need to enact some sort of universal, publicly-funded national single-payer plan that is administered at the state and local levels with comprehensive, lifetime benefits, dental, vision, mental health care, and so forth.”

Berneta Haynes, Senior Attorney, National Consumer Law Center