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Diagnosed with debt: The crisis in Mississippi

(WLBT)
Published: May. 19, 2022 at 7:19 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Medical debt is a crushing pain that is hurting the pockets and financial progress of patients here in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country.

Here is a staggering statistic.

Almost 1 in 5 Mississippians have medical debt that is in collections.

The consequences of not paying can range from being sued for liens, wage garnishments, to credit headaches.

Imagine going to a doctor for medical service, and then a bill comes, and you can’t pay. That is a reality for so many people, especially for communities of color.

“Everything is depressing, and I am trying to make it through,” said a Holmes County resident.

This resident didn’t want to be identified but wants to share his never-ending bout with medical debt.

He suffers from diabetes and has a heart condition that keeps him in the doctor’s office and the hospital.

While the bills keep coming, the money to pay them is not.

To make matters worse, he recently lost his job and insurance.

“I can’t afford to pay 300 some dollars for medicines. It is over my head now and weighing me down,” said the resident.

His story of medical debt is one of thousands in the state.

Dr. Reginald Rigbsy, the family medical physician at Magnolia Medical Clinic, says it is heartbreaking to see people who desperately need medical care but can’t afford it.

“Prescribe a medication for a patient, or I tell him they have to get follow-up lab work and x-rays that they really can’t get it done,” said Dr. Rigbsy. “It renders you helpless because you know they are not being non-compliant; they just can’t afford it.”

Here’s a look at the medical debt in collections in the state.

According to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization, 18% of Mississippians have medical debt in collections. That’s higher than the national average of 14%.

In communities of color, the number is even higher compared to predominantly white communities in the state. Around 21% of people in communities of color have medical debt in collections, and the medical debt in collections for communities of color is $910.

Yet, 16 % of people in predominantly white communities have medical debt in collections, and the typical medical debt in collections is $790.

“Particularly with black men, they will not come to the doctor because they rather see their wives, or girlfriends, children taken care of,” said Dr. Rigsby.

“The tough issue about medical debt is you are getting it at a hard time,” said Ryder Taff.

Taff is a financial advisor with New Perspectives. He points out there are serious consequences to not paying your overdue medical bills.

“If you don’t pay your bills, they can go to collections; then debt collectors can call you and try to get you to pay on that medical bill,” said Taff. “It can’t prevent you from getting other debt. It can prevent you from getting a good rate on your mortgage or getting a mortgage at all. It can affect your credit. Anything going to collections is awful for your credit score.”

Taff shares some tips to help on how to ease the burden of medical debt:

  • Get documentation
  • Do not ignore your medical bills
  • Double-check your charges
  • Check your health insurance policy and make sure your provider has your correct insurance info
  • Start negotiating with your health care administrator.
  • Request a workable payment plan or lower amount with a provider/collector (make sure you get it in writing so you have proof)
  • Avoid taking on credit card debt to pay your medical debt
  • Look for financial assistance or charity care programs

That is where Word Center Church in Jackson comes in.

Pastor Roderick Richardson and his generous congregation recently paid off more the $1 million in medical debt for poor and low-income patients they didn’t even know in the state.

He says it’s another way to show God’s love.

“When I thought about alleviating debt, I thought about creating generational freedom,” said pastor Richardson. “Now, that mother will be able to move to another district. Maybe they are able to get a credit card or open an account somewhere because they have been alleviated from this medical debt.

The church teamed up with RIP Medical Debt to make it happen.

The nonprofit uses donated dollars to buy debt from hospital collectors to help communities.

Here is a breakdown of the medical debt they’ve canceled across the country.

In 2014, RIP raised enough money to abolish over $6.6 billion of medical debt for over $3.5 million families across the country.

In Mississippi, it abolished nearly $29 million for over 24,000 individuals.

“So many people have been struggling financially, and to get a piece of economic help is really important for individuals,” said Allison Sesso.

Sesso is the Executive Director of RIP Medical Debt.

She says there’s still more that needs to be done to provide relief for those burdened by expensive medical bills. She suggests expanding Medicaid coverage to provide health care for more than 200,000 people. However, Mississippi is one of just 12 states to reject an expansion and the federal funds from the program.

“There is federal money that every state that is not expanding Medicaid is leaving on the table,” said Sesso.

“Then there is an uncompensated care pool that hospitals don’t get any payment for that exceeds $600 million a year,” Mississippi Hospital Association CEO Timothy Moore said.

Moore is a Medicaid expansion advocate.

MHA represents over 100 hospitals, health care systems, networks, and care-providers.

“The states that expanded Medicaid saw a 40 to 50 percent reduction in uncompensated care costs across the state,” said Moore.

I traveled to the State Capitol to ask Representative Chris Bell if expanding Medicaid could ever happen in the near future to help the poorest state in the country, especially those who are struggling with medical debt.

“I would suggest to them to reach out to lawmakers, especially the governor as well as your legislator, to express the need and the importance of expanding Medicaid,” Bell said. “It makes no sense that we have an opportunity to help those that are sick and can’t afford to pay their bills. We have an option out there.”

Beginning July 1, 2022, paid medical collection debt will no longer be included on consumer credit reports.

In addition, the time period before unpaid medical collection debt would appear on a consumer’s report will be increased from six months to one year, giving consumers more time to work with insurance and/or healthcare providers to address their debt before it is reported on their credit file.

In the first half of 2023, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion will also no longer include medical collection debt under at least $500 on credit reports.

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