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Murphy sounds out health care providers on rising medical debt

Norwich — In retreat just a few years ago, medical debt is on the rise again.

Hoping to reverse the trend, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., sought input here Friday from health care advocates and providers who took part in a roundtable discussion at Three Rivers Community College, the latest in a series of such events Murphy has hosted around the state.

While the number of personal bankruptcies attributable to medical debt has been cut in half since the Affordable Care Act’s passage in 2010, the number has been creeping back upward, Murphy said. An increasing number of non-elderly people are reporting medical debt, with 1 in 4 Americans choosing to forgo medical care because of the cost.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said.

A member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Murphy said he intends to craft federal legislation based on initiatives he championed more than 15 years ago when he was a member of the state Senate.

He was joined by Dr. Victor Villagra, associate director of UConn’s Health Disparities Institute, which recently studied medical debt by examining efforts by hospitals and providers to collect unpaid medical bills. Narrowly focusing on Connecticut small claims court cases involving debts of less than $5,000, researchers found that from 2011 to 2016, some 85,000 cases were filed in attempts to recover some $110 million.

“If you go to court, you lose,” Villagra said. “You will pay, either through garnished wages, or liens on your house or property. ... It’s a silent crisis.”

Villagra told an anecdote about a step he took to protect his family from unauthorized medical charges when his wife was hospitalized. He said he hand-wrote on some pre-admission paperwork that he agreed to pay for “necessary services rendered by in-network providers and for services covered by his health insurance.”

He required that he or his legal representative be consulted in advance of any non-emergency care.

“Perhaps people should think about carrying it in their wallet or purse ... to protect themselves against surprise medical bills,” Villagra said following the forum. “The statement ... would replace the line in the pre-printed form saying that they simply agree to pay for anything their insurance does not cover ... a veritable uninformed consent ...”

Other speakers Friday described the problems associated with health plans that increasingly feature high deductibles and high out-of-pocket thresholds and fail to cover necessary treatments and certain medications. The cost of cancer treatments, for example, can be especially devastating, said Maggie Gardner, whose Maggie’s House, a Hartford nonprofit, helps families of cancer patients.

Gardner said that even middle-class families with insurance have trouble paying for surgery and chemotherapy and can lose their homes or apartments as a result. “Unless you’re a millionaire, cancer is going to wipe you out,” she said.

One provider said she sees many elderly people who badly need dental care they cannot afford and which Medicare and many private insurance plans don’t cover.

Murphy said it was “nonsensical” that Medicare doesn't cover dental care.

A Groton cancer survivor who was able to handle his medical bills said his family’s biggest expense during his hospitalization was his wife’s commuting between Groton and New Haven.

Coverage of such “external expenses,” as well as certain alternative therapies and even the purchase of nutritional food, should be considered, said Murphy, who thanked those in attendance “for laying out the scope of the challenge.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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