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ON YOUR SIDE: Diagnosed with medical debt; how advocates are working to make policy changes

Published: May. 10, 2022 at 10:53 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - The nation is diagnosed with debt tied to medical bills.

The greatest amount of that medical debt in collections is usually, in lower-income communities. It impacts 14 percent of Americans across the country.

We were able to get information from most counties in the Ozarks. The lowest amount, on average per person, in our area is Barry County at $428 and Laclede County at $477. On the high end is Howell County at $1,223 and Polk County at $1,409. St. Clair County is at the top of the list at $1,708.

Advocates like RIP Medical Debt say 79 million Americans have to choose between paying their medical bills or basic needs. That’s why they are working to make long-term hospital policy changes in addition to paying off bills for families across the country with the help of donors.

“There’s no way that we’ll ever be able to pay it,” said Diana Vandeventer.

Their current stack of medical bills is more than 6 inches high. Jon Vandeventer spent months on a ventilator after his battle with COVID-19. He’s currently on disability he needs constant care. This leaves Diana Vandeventer out of work.

“People give me stuff and I’ll turn around and resell it. That’s helped a lot. We’ve been able to eat and the lights are on,” she said.

They say they have no choice but to ignore the nearly $1.5 million dollar medical debt they face.

“You just know the number and you don’t even answer it half the time. There’s nothing you can do. You’ve already told your story 100 times and it falls on deaf ears,” said Diana Vandeventer.

“Mercy would never turn a patient away because an inability to pay,” said Sterling Coker, chief revenue cycle officer for Mercy.

Most hospitals offer help.

“We have financial assistance programs up to 300 percent of federal poverty level in terms of income. It is regionally one of the most generous financial assistance programs,” he said.

CoxHealth sent us this statement about their billing process.

“At CoxHealth, patients are our top priority and our Patient Financial Services team makes every effort to accommodate patients’ financial situations.

Medical billing can be complicated, and our team has a thorough process in place to not only make it easy for patients to understand their bill, but also to work with our staff on a payment plan based on their individual situation.

From the day a bill is issued, our patients have 120 days to either repay the bill or set up a payment plan that is specific to them. We also have resources and partnerships available to assist uninsured patients or those who are unable to repay their bill. Our ultimate goal is to collaborate with patients and make the process as simple as possible.”

But when providers can’t offer help RIP Medical Debt tries to step in.

“We want to ensure that when we do this work we’re making a statement about it. We’re trying to point to the system being broken that people don’t feel like it’s a personal failing, that that stigma around having medical debt is removed,” said Allison Sesso, executive director for RIP Medical Debt.

Donors in Missouri and Arkansas recognize the need for more than just funding.

Abby Hughes Holsclaw with Arkansas Asset Funders Network said, “Something’s wrong with our system. For the funders I work with and the Arkansas Asset Funders Network table they did it explicitly to draw media and community attention to this challenge and this issue; to raise the policy and systems change recommendations that are needed.”

They’re starting small to make the biggest impact.

“It’s important to work with hospitals to improve their financial assistance policies. When we do work with hospitals we give them important data that gets them to see how effective their financials policies are really working,” said Sesso.

She says she realizes that it’s more than wallets that are being hit.

“It is mentally exhausting for people and it undermines their physical well-being,” she said.

For the Vandeventers being free of debt would be a relief but say they’ve already received their miracle.

“I didn’t want to live without him. I’ve got him here and we’re a family still,” said Diana Vandeventer.

There is no way to apply for help from RIP Medical Debt they select bills at random.

Experts say the best way to stay on top of your bills is to read them carefully and be sure to call the billing department and ask questions if a statement doesn’t look right.

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