Sen. Murphy hosts listening session on medical debt in Meriden

MERIDEN — Medical leaders and the community shared their concerns about the immense challenges of navigating medical debt during a listening session hosted Friday by US Sen. Christopher Murphy.

The event was held at the Community Health Center on State Street and included Mayor Kevin Scarpati, Meriden Health & Human Services Director Lea Crown, and Community Health Center Vice President Amy Taylor.

“I want to thank Senator Murphy for taking the time to visit us in Meriden and listen and understand what’s important in our community,” Scarpati said.

In most cases, medical debt is involuntary, said Murphy, a Democrat.

“Medical debt, especially those big bills, normally come by way of a serious illness or a serious injury,” he said. “Nothing that you plan, nothing that you could be held responsible for. Of course, the poor and the middle income get hit the hardest, because in Connecticut, tons of people are living paycheck to paycheck.”

In 2020, Murphy introduced the Strengthening Consumer Protections and Medical Debt Transparency Act in the Senate. He and Maryland Democratic Sen. Van Hollen reintroduced the bill again this year, but Murphy said he doesn’t believe it will pass before the end of the year. “I’m really getting ready to try to push this hard next year,” he said, calling it a comprehensive bill to tackle medical debt.

A requirement of the bill includes a database where hospitals and service providers give information on whether they are affiliated with a collection agency, and what the process is. This will be administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. Another requirement is that health care providers will need to ensure that all insurance coverage appeals have been resolved and then it can be determined whether consumers need assistance or if the debt will be sent to collections.

“We also proposed that we cap the interest rate at 5%,” Murphy said. “I think 5% is too much but again, we’re trying to get the legislation passed.”

One of the problems guests in attendance Friday said they experience in Connecticut is a lack of transparency in medical costs and debt. Maria Giacco, former Meriden resident of 45 years, says that individuals with health conditions should be able to have free healthcare. “It’s expensive and how can anyone afford this?” she asked. “I’ve been to the doctors and they keep prescribing me medication that is expensive.”

Another problem was brought into the discussion by Victor Villagra, adjunct professor at UConn Health. “In Connecticut, 85,000 people have been sued by their doctors, hospitals, labs, dentists etc,” he said. Villagra was able to get this information because the Connecticut Small Claims judicial system published the information. “We found five or six years of data and found that more than $110 million had been used for collection to low income people, people of color, people who don’t speak English fluently etc.”

Doris Maldonado Mendez, bilingual health information specialist with Path CT, says that as a Puerto Rican woman, she’s seen that Latino and minority communities are disproportionately impacted by medical debt. “Statewide, Black, Indigenous and people of color and people with disabilities continue to experience systemic discrimination. Unmet needs continue to be a great liability in Connecticut, especially among the marginalized. We face pervasive negative biases and assumptions about our viability, and quality of life.” she said.

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2017, households with a member of Hispanic origin were more likely to have medical debt (21.7%) compared to households without (18.6%). Black households were more likely to have debt (27.9%) compared to 7.2% of households with a white non-Hispanic household.

Frances Padilla, president of the Universal Health Care Foundation of CT, says that it’s important for medical debt to be addressed. “If we see that it’s already greatly affecting middle class white households, then it’s really stressful for those in the Latino and Black communities, as well as those who don’t speak English,” she said. “We need people to be more transparent.”

Although the transparency of medical bills is important, Murphy’s bill is targeting debt collection. “This is important but right now, we want to focus on debt collection since many people are affected by it. With the Hospital Price Transparency being put in place, we hope to have this issue resolved.”

In 2021, Hospital Price Transparency rules were passed. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, each hospital operating in the United States will be required to provide clear, accessible pricing information online about the items and services they provide. For more information visit https://www.cms.gov/hospital-price-transparency.

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