Hospital lawsuits and foreclosed wages in addition to diabetes

Nick Woodruff37, Binghamton, New York

Approximate medical debt: $ 20,000

Medical problem: Diabetes

What happened: Nick Woodruff’s salaries were first garnished in 2016.

Woodruff, diagnosed with diabetes in his 20s, had a good job. He worked for a truck dealership in this small town 175 miles northwest of New York while his wife, Elizabeth, completed her bachelor’s degree in social services. His work had health benefits. The couple had recently bought a house.

But a small diabetes-related Nick’s foot infection triggered a cascade of medical emergencies and financial struggles that the Woodruffs are still working to leave behind.

At first, Nick’s infection spread to the bone and threatened to overwhelm his immune system. He was hospitalized and suffered heart and kidney damage.

Other complications followed. Nick slipped down the stairs, breaking his foot. Doctors later had to amputate him.

Then came thousands of dollars in medical bills, followed by debt collectors.

“We were drowning in medical debt and he was not well,” Elizabeth recalled.

The accounts were overwhelming and often incomprehensible. “There’s a lot we have to that we don’t even know,” Elizabeth said.

The Woodruffs have withdrawn money from their retirement accounts. Their brothers stepped in to pay some bills.

Elizabeth landed a job as a social worker at the hospital, Our Lady of Lourdes Memorial Hospital, a Catholic institution that is now part of the Ascension chain. But this did little to prevent the debt collectors.

The hospital sued Nick and was ordered to pay another $ 9,391 before Elizabeth persuaded the hospital to lower the bill by several thousand dollars.

What’s broken: Woodruff’s struggles with debt are a common experience for Americans who have chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

These people are more likely to end up in medical debt than healthy ones, a national survey conducted by KFF found.

In fact, disease is the strongest predictor of medical debt, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute, which looked at county-level debt and disease data across the country.

In the 100 U.S. counties with the highest levels of chronic disease, nearly a quarter of adults have health care debts on their claims. Conversely, in healthier counties less than 1 in 10 are in debt.

What’s left: The Woodruffs have managed to repay part of their debt and Nick has disability benefits because he is no longer able to work.

Elizabeth has a new job, so she doesn’t have to work for the hospital that reported them.

They said they felt lucky to have been able to pay many of their bills. “I’m sorry for people who don’t have the resources that we do,” Nick said.

But the couple are shocked by the aggressive debt collection.

“This hospital boasts Catholic values ​​and claims to be proud of their charitable work,” said Elizabeth, “but I am taken aback by how numb they have been.”

About this project

“Diagnosis: Debt” is a reporting partnership between KHN and NPR that explores the extent, impact and causes of medical debt in America.

The series is based on the “KFF Health Care Debt Survey”, a survey designed and analyzed by public opinion researchers at KFF in collaboration with KHN journalists and editors. The survey was conducted from February 25 to March 20, 2022, online and by phone, in English and Spanish, on a nationally representative sample of 2,375 U.S. adults, including 1,292 adults with current health care debts and 382 adults with health care debts in the United States. last five years. The sampling margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the whole sample and 3 percentage points for those with current debt. For results based on subgroups, the sampling margin of error may be greater.

Further research was conducted by the Urban Institute, which analyzed the credit bureau and other demographics on poverty, race, and health status to explore where medical debt is concentrated in the United States and what factors are associated with high levels of debt. .

The JPMorgan Chase Institute analyzed the records of a sample of Chase credit card holders to examine how customer balances could be impacted by major medical bills.

Journalists from KHN and NPR also conducted hundreds of patient interviews across the country; spoke to doctors, healthcare leaders, consumer advocates, debt attorneys and researchers; and reviewed dozens of medical debt studies and surveys.

This article was reprinted from with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorial independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-partisan health policy research organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.