Lawmakers Propose Bills to Crush Instances of Medical Debt

Del. Robbyn T. Lewis (D-Baltimore City) and Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery) at a news conference in support of bills that would protect consumers from medical debt. Photo by Hannah Gaskill

A pair of bills aimed at providing protections for hospital patients struggling with medical debt was heard in the House Health and Government Operations Committee Friday.

Del. Robbyn T. Lewis (D-Baltimore City) said before the committee that over 145,000 lawsuits were filed between 2009 and 2018 by hospitals against their patients for unpaid medical bills.

These cases were settled in a number of ways, including over 3,000 instances of bankruptcy.

The median amount of medical debt retained by these patients was $944.

“Those 3,000 patients — those are our constituents,” she said during the hearing.

Sponsored by Lewis, HB1420 would expand eligibility for hospital-provided financial assistance and upsize the scope of those who qualify for free or charity care, as well as help to establish a process for hospitals to more accurately determine who does and does not qualify for that assistance.

“This bill is designed to help people without the ability to pay medical bills,” she said before the committee.

The Maryland Hospital Association is supportive of Lewis’ bill with the addition of some amendments.

The Medical Debt Protection Act, or HB1081, sponsored by Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery) would put restraints on the methods that hospitals use to collect their unpaid debts.

The legislation would be the impetus for creating payment plans and limiting negative hits to patients’ credit reports. It would also disallow institutions to file court actions against individuals who owe less than $5,000, pursue liens on their homes or garnish their wages, among other prohibitions.

Charkoudian said that this legislation would allow hospitals to pursue necessary debt collection in a method “that is not predatory.”

“It is absolutely unacceptable, that in one of the richest states in the country, you can get sick and, as a result, lose everything,” Charkoudian said at a pre-hearing news conference hosted by the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.

Maryland Hospital Association President Bob Atlas testified during the bill’s hearing that his organization is “resolute” in looking into improving the way that hospitals handle patient debt, but that Charkoudian’s proposed bill may induce “unintended, adverse consequences,” like inducing a climb in the cost of Medicaid and uncompensated care.

The Maryland Hospital Association is in favor of the bill but submitted an amendment requesting further study of its proposed policies in a workgroup.

“Please do not take these concerns lightly,” he said

During the news conference, consumer protection attorney Kat Hyland said that she sees medical debt cases being filed at lightning speed — sometimes for debts as low as a few hundred dollars.

“What really gets me at the core of this economic rights issue is the fact that these are people who are sick,” she said. “These are people who are in recovery and in medical treatment who now have to bear legal expenses and find additional resources to go represent themselves in court in what could be handled in a completely different way.”

Charkoudian said that she knows there are alternative methods because not every hospital chooses to litigate. But many do, and it impacts the lives of many Marylanders who are left to dig themselves out.

For example, five years ago, Verdell Clark had unpaid medical bills. She also still had cancer.

In written testimony read in her absence at the hearing Friday, Clark painted a picture of stacking medical debts and incoming calls from the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s financial department.

“At that point, I wasn’t concerned about the bills because I was sick and I knew I couldn’t pay the bills,” she wrote.

So she paid it no mind.

After her return to work, Clark was refused medical care several times because of her outstanding debts, and found herself being sent to the hospital’s financial department to settle up before being seen.

She was eventually sued, and when she arrived at the wrong courthouse was arrested, handcuffed and made to wait in a holding cell in the basement until a judge dismissed her case.

Despite the trauma, debt and newly accrued bad credit, Clark said that she was able to pick herself back up.

“I was able to get through it,” she wrote. “There are other people who are not able to get through it.”

Clark isn’t alone. Last May, the Baltimore Sun reported that Johns Hopkins had pursued over 2,000 lawsuits against debtor patients throughout the course of a decade.

Johns Hopkins nurse Josh Pickett said that as a hospital employee he had no idea that he had been complicit in the financial burden of his patients.

“When I learned that thousands of patients were being targeted by Maryland hospitals … I was shocked,” he stated. “When I learned that my hospital was a top offender, I was horrified.”

Pickett noted that patient fear of medical debt often causes them to avoid treatment, which exacerbates health problems and can lead to even bigger medical bills.

“The cycle of fear and stress generated by wealthy hospitals as they prey on vulnerable patients stops today,” he said.

[email protected]

Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.