WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has introduced a federal measure aimed at preventing health care and medical providers from seizing bank accounts and garnishing wages of financially strapped patients who owe them money during the coronavirus pandemic.
Van Hollen is sponsoring the COVID-19 Medical Debt Collection Relief Act.
Van Hollen cites data showing Maryland hospitals filed 140,000 debt collection lawsuits against patients between 2009 and 2018. The Democrat also points to state and national data showing the financial burdens medical debts place on households and how it can lead to other financial problems and others becoming uninsured or putting off medical care.
The Maryland senator said the measure is needed in light of the adverse health and financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The bill would suspend wage garnishments and bank account seizures for overdue medical bills until after the pandemic ends or 18 months after the bill potentially passes. Repayment plans would also be suspended during the pandemic under the legislation.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the health and economic wellbeing of so many Americans, it’s unconscionable that some hospitals are going after patients’ wages and bank accounts to collect medical debts. When many are struggling to pay rent and put food on the table, this practice can leave families destitute. We should never allow medical debts to ruin livelihoods – but especially not as we face this pandemic. That’s why I’ll be pushing to enact this legislation immediately and to better protect Maryland families from medical debt,” Van Hollen said in a statement.
The Maryland Hospital Association said it is studying the legislation and is looking to talk to the U.S. senator’s office about its details and impacts.
Maryland Hospital Association President and CEO Bob Atlas said hospitals across the state try to work with patients who are in need or who are facing financial hardships.
“Maryland hospitals are committed to delivering the care people need without imposing financial hardship. Hospitals have taken many steps to ensure that people who are uninsured or whose insurance coverage has large gaps receive appropriate aid based on demonstrated need,” Atlas said in a statement
Van Hollen’s measure has the support of some consumer groups. Consumer advocates would also like to see some long-term reforms related to medical bills and debt collections on overdue bills.
“In Maryland, thousands of families are facing financial hardship from job loss, layoffs, and business closures. Others are grappling with the short and longer-term effects of COVID-19 for themselves and their loved ones. Black and Latinx communities are hardest hit by job loss and COVID-19. During this unprecedented time, no one should also struggle to manage medical debt” said Marceline White, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.