Late last month, a broad coalition of Arkansas nonprofits and donors coordinated the elimination of $35 million in medical debt for over 23,000 Arkansans. Leaders from two of the organizing groups say there is still much work to be done in this area and they hope to advance public policies addressing systemic challenges to lower-income citizens who encounter medical emergencies.
Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury, president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Abby Hughes Holsclaw, senior director for Arkansas Asset Funders Network, say that medical debt can derail the financial stability of asset-limited, income-constrained, employed (ALICE) workers. ALICE workers have jobs, but they are typically lower paying and don’t always offer benefits. A $1,500 (or higher) medical bill can result in financial challenges related to their jobs, child care, transportation or other health concerns.
“So really for us, the next priority is, how do we develop public policy that addresses this in the long term? To pay off debt is a great thing to do, and it’s important and necessary for our ALICE families. Really, what is most important though, is ensuring that our state and even federally that we have policies in place that protect our ALICE families, that enable us to mitigate any future medical debt,” West-Scantlebury said. “It is not just stopping at paying this medical debt, but it’s actually the long-term process of ensuring that there’s public policy in place that does not adversely hurt ALICE families any further.”
“From the beginning, we said we were very interested in raising dollars to pay off this debt, but that it had to be coupled with policy recommendations and action. And that that is truly our number-one goal. And that is to change the policies and the systems that are trapping people in these debt cycles to begin with,” Hughes Holsclaw added.
Some of the policy recommendations being explored include:
- Monitoring the No Surprise Medical Act, a new state law that reduces out-of-network health care expenses to in-network costs;
- Restrictions on wage garnishments related to debt;
- Aggressive and abusive debt collection practices;
- A variety of court costs, fines and fees; and
- No suspensions on drivers licenses for failure to appear in court.
These debt relief proposals may find an audience in the 2023 state legislative session, while some may require federal action. West-Scantlebury said many organizations in the medical debt relief coalition will continue to advocate for policies to help raise the living standard for ALICE families.
“This is not the first time that foundations or philanthropy have come together on major issues in our state, whether it’s the Census, whether it’s around immigration, whether it’s around our ALICE families. We actually work together often all the time for these types of big systemic-change initiatives. So coming together was pretty easy to do,” she said.
You can watch the full interview with Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury and Abby Hughes Holsclaw in the video below.