Gov. Ned Lamont convened a small group in Hartford on Thursday to discuss his proposal to cancel residents’ overdue medical debt, which the Appropriations Committee excluded from its budget proposal last month.
In February, the governor unveiled a $20 million plan to use federal pandemic aid to potentially cancel billions of dollars in medical debt for thousands of Connecticut residents. Comptroller Sean Scanlon called it a “big piece” of the administration’s broader goal this session to drive down the cost of health care.
“I think this $20 million is an incredibly important investment to really help the lives of tens of thousands of families right here in Connecticut so we really show that this medical emergency from COVID is over and we’re helping everybody get back on their feet,” Lamont told the group.
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Deidre Gifford, executive director of the Office of Health Strategy, said that 41% of adults in the U.S. have medical debt, and a disproportionate share of those are people of color and those living with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
Executives from Trinity Health of New England participated in the discussion. The hospital system announced last month that it would partner with non-profit RIP Medical Debt to cancel $32.8 million of medical debt resulting from care received at Trinity. The effort will erase debt for 22,300 patients, the majority of whom live in Connecticut.
RIP Medical Debt purchases medical debt held by low-income families at a steep discount — the organization’s website claims that every $100 donated cancels $10,000 in medical debt. Gifford said the state could work with the same organization if the proposal succeeds.
The funding for Lamont’s measure didn’t make it into the $51 billion budget endorsed by the Appropriations Committee last month, but the governor hopes that will change over the next few weeks of negotiations.
Dennis Thomas, a patient advocate, heart transplant recipient and colon cancer survivor explained the impact that the price of care has on people who face serious health challenges.
Thirteen years ago, Thomas, who worked as a preschool teacher in Bloomfield at the time, went to the doctor, hoping to figure out why he had been feeling “out of order.” He would spend the next five months in the ICU waiting for a new heart.
Thomas eventually received a transplant that saved his life. But upon leaving the hospital, he faced another monumental hurdle: the daily medication he needed would cost him $10,000 a month. Without health coverage, he turned to friends and family for help.
“It is overwhelming at times. Because, do you get this medication, or do you keep the lights on?” said Thomas.
“You want to talk about trying to avoid medical debt, you avoid life,” said Jan Kritzman, a breast cancer survivor and patient advocate who explained that the fear of medical debt often prevents people from getting the care they need. Kritzman advocated for a bill the state legislature passed last year to expand insurance coverage for breast and ovarian cancer screening.
Lamont’s $20 million proposal has received some criticism for using pandemic funding to give a payout to the hospitals.
“So, is the state of Connecticut purchasing debt that’s uncollectible anyway? That’s my question, and if it is, the hospital should be retiring that debt without a payoff,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Vincent Candlora, R-North Branford, when Lamont announced the plan in February.
But, Lamont said the trade-off makes sense, given the relief that it would provide to households burdened by medical debt.
“You’re right, [the hospitals] have hundreds of millions or more sitting on their balance sheet of money that’s complicated to collect,” said Lamont when asked to respond to the criticism.
Then, he pointed at Dennis Thomas. “But at the same token, they write off the debt. And Mr. Thomas is out free and clear, healthy and ready to go without that cloud hanging over. I think it’s a good trade-off.”