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Vermont legal advocacy group seeks stories of medical-debt burden

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/3/2021 10:02:42 PM
Modified: 8/3/2021 10:02:47 PM

The calls that come through Vermont Legal Aid’s Health Care Advocate HelpLine vary, but the ones that can be most heartbreaking are from people who need procedures or medications they’re not getting.

“The most difficult cases we get are the families who say, ‘We just can’t afford it,’ ” said Mike Fisher, chief health care advocate for Vermont Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm.

In 2019, Vermont’s 14 hospitals reported $85 million of consumer bad debt to the Green Mountain Care Board, said Fisher, a former lawmaker from Addison County who chaired the House Health Care Committee. Debt is considered “bad” once bills get sent to collection agencies for payment.

“We hear a number like that $85 million, and what does that mean for on-the-ground Vermont families?” Fisher said. “That’s what motivated us to say we really need to advance Vermonters’ voices and make sure that, as we’re all focused on giving people the right care at the right time, we understand what the high costs of care does to people in a real way as they try to get care.”

To that end, the organization has launched a “medical debt” project to collect stories about the impact medical debt has on the everyday lives of Vermonters. People can participate by filling out a survey at vtlegalaid.org/hca-survey or by calling 802-448-6943 through the end of the month.

“We’re really looking for stories about how debt, medical debt impacts people’s thinking about accessing more care,” Fisher said. “We’re really interested in hearing stories about how debt impacts medical decision making.”

The survey covers all types of debt from physical care, to mental health, vision and dental. It does not matter if the debt comes from providers in Vermont or out of state, as long as the participants live in Vermont.

“We’re asking the question in a very broad way,” Fisher said. “A significant number of Vermonters talk about dental,” when it comes to care they are delaying. “It’s hard to know how the debt impacts other parts of people’s lives, whether they’re not able to meet their basic needs.”

While uninsured rates have largely remained steady since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, higher-deductible plans have been on the rise.

“So that means more and more Vermonters are having patient shares that are a higher and higher percentage of their income,” Fisher said. “Medical inflation grows significantly faster than real wages.”

The main goal of the project — which was in the works before the COVID-19 pandemic and was delayed as a result — is to provide information to policymakers so they know what Vermonters are dealing with on a personal level.

“Part of our mandate is to advance consumer voices, make sure Vermonters are being heard and it’s really as pure and simple as that,” Fisher said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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