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Bill would protect patients from being sued over medical debt

Posted at 5:45 PM, Feb 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-16 18:28:47-05

BALTIMORE (WMAR) — During this pandemic, so many Marylanders have needed medical care. For some, with that comes the burden of medical debt; the potential to be sued and pulled deeper into poverty. But a new bill would protect patients from that.

"No family deserves to go through what we did. To lose their home because of medical debt," said Nick Mostris.

For Mostris and his Harford County family, it started in the 1990s. His dad was diagnosed with a rare and chronic disease. He got treatment for 15 years before he died. But still, the bills rolled in

"I saw the shock and the stress of the bills take over my mothers' every waking moment," said Mostris.

A lien was ultimately placed on her home. After she died, Mostris was force to sell it.

"The original bill was just $6,000. Now it had become over $26,000 in interest, late fees, court fees and attorney fees," said Mostris. "Why is right for hospitals to profit sick and dying people?"

It’s one story of many. The Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition said between 2008 and 2018, Maryland hospitals filed over 140,000 lawsuits against former patients to collect debt, often targeting communities of color that are now adversely affected by COVID-19. Nurse Kim Walsh said the fear is keeping some from seeking medical care.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has really driven home the understanding that avoiding necessary care puts lives at risk and it can lead to the spread of more disease," said Walsh.

It’s why they are pushing for the passage of the Medical Debt Protection Act.

It allows hospitals to continue debt collection, but puts protections in place, prohibiting lawsuits for all medical debts of $1,000 or less and stopping property liens to satisfy medical debt judgments.

"It sets guardrails so that people are not dragged into court over $250, having to miss work and have all of that stress. It sets guardrails so that people have a shot at paying bills back through a reasonable payment plan before things are turned over to debt collectors," said Del. Lorig Charkoudian, the bill sponsor.

The Maryland Department of Legislative Services said in the bills' Fiscal and Policy Note that restricting actions hospitals can take to recover medical debt will increase uncompensated care, leading to an unknown increase in expenses for health insurers, Medicaid, and self-pay patients.

The Maryland Hospital Association President Bob Atlas said in a statement: "Maryland hospitals want everyone to know we’re committed to delivering the care people need without imposing financial hardship. Hospitals already have taken many steps to ensure that people who are uninsured or whose insurance coverage has large gaps receive appropriate aid based on demonstrated need.

While we support the intent of the bill, there are some areas of concern. The complex provisions of this proposal demand careful thought to prevent unintended adverse consequences and get to the root of these issues. We will continue to listen to and to work with anyone who can offer sensible suggestions to improve the processes hospitals use to administer the payment process."

There was a House committee hearing on the bill Tuesday and it’s being heard by a Senate committee next week.