A new study by the American Medical Association found that nearly 1 in 5 American households carry medical debt averaging around $4,600.

Medical debt, they found, was also “associated with a higher risk of being unable to pay one’s rent or mortgage, being evicted and being food insecure.

The problem is especially prevalent in North Carolina where studies have shown the state to have one of the nation’s highest shares of residents with medical debt.

According to credit bureau data, only five states have a higher share than North Carolina.

One of the primary reasons for this is that the state ranks in the bottom half nationally in terms of policies that protect patients from hospitals and their debt collection practices.

In fact, the National Academy of State Health Policy and the North Carolina State Health Plan found that hospitals are encouraging patients who can’t pay to open medical credit cards that charge interest.

“Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, UNC Health, Cone Health, and AccessOne Health encouraged patients to use medical credit cards that can charge interest rates as high as 18% after a promotional period,” the study showed.

When that doesn’t work, hospital systems will attempt to collect on bills by damaging credit scores and suing patients, according to the study.

North Carolina has no laws on the books to protect people from these kinds of collection practices.

For now.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers have introduced the “Medical Debt De-Weaponization Act.

The bill:

  • Requires that hospital and healthcare facilities disclose charges for all services.
  • Sets standards for the provision of charity and discounted care.
  • Prohibits collecting on medical debt though arrest, home foreclosures and wage garnishment.
  • Institutes financial assistance guidelines and parameters for patients who cannot pay medical bills.
  • Places fair limits on interests for medical debt.

If the General Assembly passed this bill, and expanded Medicaid, North Carolina would go from the bottom half to second nationally for patient debt protections.

The medical debt crisis is a national epidemic that is making it harder for families to afford food and keep their home.

It is particularly bad in North Carolina.

Recent steps by credit agencies will help, but legislative action is needed.

Thankfully, policies have been written and introduced.

Now they just need to be passed.

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