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Majority of Americans favor forgiving medical debt, an AP-NORC poll finds

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Although reducing student loan debt has been a focus for President Joe Biden, the poll found that Americans are more likely to say medical debt relief should be a government priority.

Janille Williams wants to buy a house someday — but first, he has to pay down tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt.

“I was hospitalized for a blood infection for three months more than ten years ago, and the bill was for more than $300,000,” said Williams, 38, a Fairbanks, Alaska, resident who works as a retail sales manager for AT&T. “I was in the middle of changing jobs, the only time in my life I haven’t had health insurance.”

When the bill went to collections, the debt was eventually lowered to about $50,000, he said, an amount that was still not feasible for him to pay.

Medical debt forgiveness, a priority for some lawmakers and advocates, would make a substantial difference to Williams' credit report and stop the calls from collections agencies.

“They don’t give you a choice in the hospital. ‘If you leave, you’ll die,' they told me. I didn't feel like dying," Williams said. “I don’t think anyone should have to go into financial ruin to live.”

Many Americans agree, according to a new poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. According to the survey, about half of Americans say it’s extremely or very important for the U.S. government to provide debt relief for those who have yet to pay off medical treatments.

Especially since the pandemic, an increasing number of cities and states — including Connecticut, New York City, New Orleans and Chicago — are implementing their own versions of medical debt forgiveness. The Biden administration recently announced a proposed rule that would wipe consumer medical debt off most credit reports.

The poll found that support for medical debt forgiveness is particularly high in cases where a patient experienced health care fraud. About two-thirds of U.S. adults support medical debt forgiveness if the individual has, for example, been wrongfully billed for services. But majorities of Americans favor relief in other situations, too, such as when the patient has made on-time payments toward an existing loan for 20 years, has large amounts of medical debt compared to their income, or is experiencing financial hardship.

About 6 in 10 people with debt from medical bills favor medical debt forgiveness if the person has large amounts of debt compared to their income, compared to about half of people without medical debt.

Denise Early, 65, an Independent in Omaha, Nebraska, who favors medical debt forgiveness, said she experienced an injury on the job that eventually led to several surgeries she believes should have been covered by workers' compensation claims, but were not. The costs eventually pushed her to declare bankruptcy.

Early worked as a custodian at a post office, she said, when she suffered an accident. After initial hospital visits and treatments were ineffective, Early eventually received knee and ankle surgeries to address ongoing difficulties.

“I still get bills every day,” Early said. “Forgiveness would help clear a lot of my debts.”

Early said she also currently has more than $100,000 in unpaid student loan debt.

Although reducing student loan debt has been a focus for President Joe Biden, the poll found that Americans are more likely to say medical debt relief should be a government priority. About 4 in 10 U.S. adults said that it’s extremely or very important for the U.S. government to provide student debt relief.

Lesley Turner, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, who helped craft the poll, said the survey captures a divide regarding who deserves debt relief.

“If you need to go to the emergency room because of a major health issue, that is much less of an active choice than the decision to go to college," she said. “Even though, given today's economy, going to college is in many ways a very important if not essential route to economic mobility and stability.”

Overall, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are all similarly likely to support clearing medical debt if the person experienced fraud, the AP-NORC poll found, though Democrats are more supportive than Republicans in cases where the person is experiencing financial hardship or if the person has large amounts of medical debt compared to their income.

Ed Kane, a 71-year-old Republican from Chicopee, Massachusetts, believes medical debt forgiveness should not be an option. He's survived multiple medical emergencies — including heart attacks and cancer — and credits his employer health insurance for providing good coverage that kept him out of debt.

“We are starting to become a nation that gives away everything. And I’m tired of it,” Kane said. “I’ve worked hard all my life. I worked two jobs. I had great medical insurance because of it. Everybody can do it; there’s no reason that people can’t reach a higher level than they do.”

Medical debt forgiveness is also a higher priority for Democrats. According to the poll, about two-thirds of Democrats say it's extremely or very important for the U.S. government to provide medical debt relief, compared to about 3 in 10 Republicans.

Matt Haskell, 24, of Englewood, Florida, a Republican who said he supports debt forgiveness, also has firsthand experience with high medical bills for an unexpected emergency.

Haskell said he was working on cars, some of which were rusty, at the time of his accident. One afternoon, what seemed like a piece of dust got into his eye.

“It turned out it was a metal flake embedded in my cornea,” Haskell said. “I didn’t know for five days. I went to the ER when I could no longer open my eyes.”

From the visit, Haskell said he incurred more than $4,500 in debt.

“I generally think it’s never anybody’s fault when they have a medical condition,” he said. “If they get cancer or a tumor or have an episode from undiagnosed diabetes — it’s not someone’s fault if they develop something and now they’re thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.”

Copyright 2024 Health News Florida