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Ore. Legislation Addresses Debt for Patients Who Can't Afford Medical Bills

Medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy. (MargJohnsonVA/Twenty20)
Medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy. (MargJohnsonVA/Twenty20)
March 22, 2019

SALEM, Ore. – A measure in the Oregon Legislature aims to make sure hospitals are providing financial help to people who can't afford their medical bills.

House Bill 3076 seeks to change the way nonprofit hospitals handle charity care, which has dropped off by 50 percent since 2010, according to an analysis of Oregon Health Authority data.

Even hospital staff has struggled to get help with medical bills. Hollie Murphy, a certified nursing assistant at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, was brought to collections and ultimately had to declare bankruptcy because of debt from a hysterectomy in 2013.

"It's like they didn't care that you had a family to support and that you needed to put food on the table and you still needed to pay rent to have a roof over your head, that type of a thing,” says Murphy. “So it just made it very stressful."

HB 3076 would require nonprofit hospitals to cover services in full for families with household incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line and provide discounts on a sliding scale for families with incomes up to 600 percent of the federal poverty line. The bill is scheduled to receive a hearing next week.

Felisa Hagins, political director with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49, says 60 percent of surveyed staff at Sacred Heart at Eugene owed medical debt to their employer when employees decided to organize in 2016.

She also notes that medical debt is the number one cause of bankruptcy in the country.

Hagins says nonprofit hospitals should consider how to effectively provide care to everyone who comes through their doors and HB 3076 would outline how they can do that.

"What is a nonprofit health system?” asks Hagins. “What are nonprofit hospitals? How do you maintain your nonprofit status, still meet your mission and provide care and community benefit for the communities you serve?"

There are 58 nonprofit hospitals in Oregon.

The bill would put in place more preventive measures for predatory debt collection and ensure that debt is not passed on to a patient's spouse or children. It also would establish a minimum level for community benefit spending for each hospital.

The hospital industry says a floor isn't necessary because it is committed to this type of spending. But Hagins says this process needs to be more transparent so that hospitals can be held accountable.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR