Sleepless nights over her children’s future as debt piles up

“My doctor saved my life, but my medical bills are stealing my children’s lives.”

Jenny Rae Peters

Jenny Rae Peters44, Rapid City, South Dakota

Estimated medical debt: Over $30,000

Medical problems: breast cancer

what happened: Jenny Rae Peters’ budget has always been tight. But Peters, a single mother and mental health counselor, has worked to provide opportunities for her children, including two daughters she adopted and a foster child. One of his daughters was homeless.

Then two years ago, Peters was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

Multiple surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy control the disease. But, despite the insurance, Peters was left with more than $30,000 in debt and threats from bill collectors.

A collection call came while Peters was lying in the recovery room after her double mastectomy. “I was kind of delirious, and I thought it was my baby,” she said. “It’s someone asking me to pay a medical bill.”

Through surgery and treatment, Peters continued to work so he wouldn’t lose his insurance. He took on extra work to pay some bills. Five days a week, he works two shifts each at a mental health crisis center and a clinic where he counsels teenagers, some of whom are suicidal. Last year, three friends on the East Coast paid off some of the debt.

But Peters’ credit score dropped below 600. And she is constantly worried about how she will provide for her children.

Peters said she may drop car insurance for her teenage daughter, who has gotten her license. Canceling ice skating for another girl will net an extra $60 a month. But Peters is reluctant. “Do you know what it’s like to be a foster child and win a gold medal in ice skating? Do you know what kind of citizens they can be if they are special?” he said.

Peters added: “My doctor saved my life, but my medical bills are stealing from my children’s lives.”

What’s broken: Despite many advances in cancer treatment, millions of Americans end up in debt after being diagnosed.

This is partly because drugs and treatments are now so expensive. That’s also because health plans typically require patients to share thousands of dollars in deductibles and other costs.

One study found that cancer patients are 71% more likely than Americans without the disease to have bills in collections or have a credit account closed for nonpayment.

Debt forces many to make difficult sacrifices. According to a survey conducted by KFF for this project, two-thirds of US adults who have incurred health care debt who have had cancer themselves or in their family have reduced spending on food, clothing or other household basics. 1 in 4 declared bankruptcy or lost their home.

Financial stress from debt can speed recovery and even death in cancer patients, researchers have found.

What’s left: Peters’ cancer is in remission and his health has improved. She said she is excited about adopting her two other foster children.

But threats are coming from debt collectors. He recently received a new collection notice for $13,000, warning him that he will soon face legal action.

Peters said there was no way he could pay off all his debts. She recently told a bill collector that she would go to court and ask a judge to decide which of her children should miss after-school activities to pay off debt.

He asked another debt collector if he had children. “He told me it was my choice to have the surgery,” Peters recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I guess I chose not to be dead.'”

About this project

“Diagnosis: Debt” is a reporting partnership between KHN and NPR that explores the scale, impact and causes of medical debt in America.

The series draws on the “KFF Health Care Debt Survey,” a poll designed and analyzed by KFF’s public opinion researchers in collaboration with KHN journalists and editors. The survey was conducted online and by telephone in English and Spanish from February 25 to March 20, 2022, among a nationally representative sample of 2,375 US adults, including 1,292 adults with current health care debt and 382 adults who had health care debt. last five years The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample and 3 percentage points for those with current debt. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher.

Additional research was conducted by the Urban Institute, which analyzed credit bureau and other demographic data on poverty, race and health status to explore where medical debt is concentrated in the United States and what factors are associated with high debt levels.

The JPMorgan Chase Institute analyzed records from a sample of Chase credit card holders to determine how customers’ balances may be affected by major medical expenses.

Reporters from KHN and NPR also conducted hundreds of interviews with patients across the country; spoke to physicians, health industry leaders, consumer advocates, debt lawyers and researchers; and reviewed scores of studies and surveys about medical debt.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides health information to the nation.

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