Pa. lawmakers propose medical debt relief bill

Program to help low-income families hamstrung by medical debt

HARRISBURG, Jan. 23 – Seeking to ease the burden of medical debt on working families, a plan to create the Pennsylvania Medical Debt Repayment Program was unveiled today by state Reps. Arvind Venkat and Nick Pisciottano, both D-Allegheny; Bridget Kosierowski, D-Lackawanna; and Tarik Khan and Donna Bullock, both D-Phila.

“As a physician, I have seen firsthand how problems with our nation’s healthcare system – including medical debt – have hurt families and prevented people from getting the care they need,” said Venkat, the first physician to serve in the General Assembly in nearly 60 years. “While there are many issues that we need to address, including the systemic problems that lead to spiraling medical debt, this bill is an important first step toward helping people across Pennsylvania get the assistance and the care they need – and not phone calls from collection agencies.”

“When my son was diagnosed with childhood leukemia, the last thing I wanted to worry about was the stress of medical costs. No family in Pennsylvania should ever need to think twice before seeking care for chronic or other serious conditions for fear of going into medical debt,” Kosierowski said. “We must do whatever we can at the state level to ensure that families don’t need to choose between going to the doctor or putting food on their table or buying clothes for their children.”

The lawmakers likened the newly proposed state program to a similar effort that recently came to fruition at the local level in Pittsburgh. Partnering with nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, the Pittsburgh City Council invested $1 million toward alleviating the medical debt of their constituents. For this price, the city estimates it will be able to discharge $115 million of health care debt for about 24,000 residents.

With a $5 million investment (about 0.01% of last year’s state budget) in a state-level program, the legislators estimate more than $575 million of medical debt could be cleared.

“Every $1 spent on this program could eliminate over $100 of medical debt – it’s hard to think of a better return on investment for taxpayers,” said Pisciottano. “The Pennsylvania Medical Debt Repayment Program would not only make health care more accessible but would also provide a significant boost to our economy by giving families more spending power.”

Bullock highlighted that among the more than half of American adults who report accumulating debt due to medical or dental bills in the last five years, women are more likely than men to carry medical debt, and 69% of Black and 65% of Hispanic adults report having medical debt, compared to 54% of white adults.

“Black and brown Pennsylvanians are disproportionately affected by medical costs, access to medical care and many illnesses that need routine treatments,” Bullock said. “To provide relief from bills is the first step to ensuring that everyone can access the care they need, when they need it.”

“As a nurse, I have seen firsthand the devastation that expensive health care bills can cause," Khan said. "Medical debt keeps people from getting the treatments they need and can worsen their health. I support this legislation to avoid seeing another person skip out on a critical treatment that they need to avoid an unmanageable medical debt they cannot afford.”

Following its introduction, the bill will await a committee referral from Speaker Rozzi, an early step on the long path toward becoming law.