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Capital Region advocates call for end to medical debt

Area residents and healthcare advocates gathered Tuesday, calling for a reform of New York state’s hospital financial aid system and an end to what they say are harmful collections practices used by healthcare providers.

Citing research conducted by the Community Service Society, advocates say that between 2015 and 2020, over 53,000 New Yorkers were sued by non-profit hospitals. 16 percent of adults surveyed had to take out loans or go into credit card debt to pay for medical care; 15 percent had used up all or most of their savings; and 12 percent had been put into collections. According to the CSS, those numbers are more than double for people of color in parts of the state.

Bebhinn Francis told rallygoers she has "with abundant medical issues" amd was denied treatment when she went to a St. Peter's Urgent Care facility, even after paying $250 for a previous visit. She says a receptionist told her she had $350 in accumulated past co-pays that needed to be paid before she would be seen.

"I had to leave that urgent care and go to the emergency room where I sat for six hours in a room full of sick people," Francis said. "I was denied medical care for my medical bills. And that ain't right."

Reverend Joe Paparone is a lead organizer with the Labor-Religion Coalition and NYS Poor People’s Campaign. He says the groups are part of the End Medical Debt campaign, a coalition of over 50 organizations that has been lobbying for the passage of three separate bills, one of which Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul signed days earlier:

"And that is in regards to wage garnishments and liens on property that hospitals will no longer be able to pursue those avenues for debt collection," said Paparone. "There's another bill that is on her desk that involves facility fees, which are kind of surprise fees that people are often hit with that they don't know about. And another bill that is currently in the legislature that would unify and simplify the process for applying for financial aid. Right now, every hospital does it on their own, and has their own unique structure. And a lot of times people don't even learn or hear about that."

The advocates are calling on legislators to pass the Ounce of Protection Act. Standing with the crowd, 110th district Assemblymember Phil Steck, a Democrat, says there needs to be a fundamental reform of the system.

"People don't realize that the health care system has its hand in their pocket in so many ways," Steck said. "We pay real property taxes to support Medicaid. We pay taxes to support Medicare. We pay income taxes to support Medicaid. We pay the costs of workers compensation, which has a health insurance component. We pay auto insurance, which has a health insurance component, and, we also pay premiums or a percentage of premiums for our own private health insurance, for the those of us like myself, who are fortunate enough to have it. So the bottom line is that this is not just a poor person's issue. This is an every person's issue."

A St. Peter's Health Partners spokesperson responded to a request for comment via email:

"At St. Peter's Health Partners, our priority is our patients. We understand the emotional and financial hardships many are facing, particularly those resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Common collection practices only compound these hardships, adding to a patient’s distress. In recent years, this became readily apparent which is why we abandoned such practices including stopping garnishing wages and filing lawsuits for unpaid medical bills. Pending lawsuits were abandoned as well, which meant existing liens were eliminated.

We have always considered each patient on a case-by-case basis and have exceptions in place for low-income and uninsured patients. We continue to provide financial assistance to those identified, eligible patients and offer payment plans to patients willing to work with us to identify long-term solutions.

Helping our community is at the core of our Mission. In fiscal year 2022, St. Peter's Health Partners invested more than $110 million in community health. These efforts included preventative services; uncompensated care; community partnerships; and other efforts to meet the health needs of the uninsured, low-income, and other at-risk populations. Thanks to these resources, we were able to reach an additional 9,000 people in FY22 compared to the previous fiscal year. Our services benefited victims of crime, homeless people who needed treatment or temporary housing while ill, and individuals and families with food insecurities.”

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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