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by Nisha Kurani as part of the program of professional education at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley.
Medical bills and medical debt have a lasting impact on the financial stability for families, particularly vulnerable populations. The uninsured and lower income groups are more likely to experience problems paying medical bills, although people of all socio- economic groups report experiencing problems with medical costs. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) aimed to increase protections for consumers by increasing access to private and public insurance coverage, as wel
l as mandating charity care for low-income, uninsured or underinsured patients in nonprofit hospitals. While uninsured individuals do not have any insurance to help cover costs in the case of medical necessity, underinsured refers to a person who has health insurance but faces high medical costs. This is especially relevant today: recent surveys show that 35% Americans still experience issues with medical costs, and 47% of that group reported that they were unaware of charity care after receiving health care services. While health insurance mitigates the impact of medical bills by providing some protection, medical bills nonetheless remain a problem for millions of insured and uninsured individuals.
This is particularly relevant for the client, Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA), a legal advocacy clinic based in Oakland, California. HERA provides legal services and information to Californians, particularly those most vulnerable, to promote financial security free of economic abuses. They also advocate for stronger consumer protections from debt at the state level. While HERA’s focus in the past has centered around homeownership and protections from mortgage debt, over the past 6 years, HERA has opened its doors to address the vast array of debt and credit concerns experienced by tenants and homeowners alike that are unrelated to housing, while continuing to address housing related concerns for renters and homeowners.
The goal of this report is two-fold. The first is to analyze the current landscape of medical costs, bills, and debt for low-income individuals, with a case study on HERA clients, to understand why medical bills may persist among insurance coverage expansions and charity care policies in California. The second part of this paper examines charity care policies for hospitals in Alameda and Contra Costa counties in the Bay Area, California. California in particular has policy protections in place for low-income uninsured and certain insured individuals, yet data suggests that those policies are underutilized by eligible populations. The paper will conclude with policy recommendations on how to improve charity care and consumer protections in the U.S.
See the full paper here.