I was amazed at how ruthless they were.
Nick Woodruff37, Binghamton, New York
Approximate medical loan: $ 20,000
Medical problems: Diabetes
What happened: In 2016, Nick Woodruff’s wages were sorted for the first time.
Woodruff, who was diagnosed with diabetes in his 20s, had a good job. He worked for a truck dealership in this small town 175 miles northwest of New York while his wife, Elizabeth, completed her degree in social work. His work had health benefits. The couple recently bought a home.
But a minor infection in Nick’s leg related to diabetes started a cascade of medical emergencies and financial struggles that Woodruff is still working to keep behind him.
At first Nick’s infection spread to the bones and threatened to destroy his immune system. He was hospitalized and his heart and kidneys were damaged.
More complexities are followed. Nick went down the stairs and broke his leg. Later doctors have to cut it.
Then there are medical bills of thousands of dollars, followed by debt collectors.
“We were drowning in medical debt, and she wasn’t doing well,” Elizabeth recalled.
The bills were irresistible and often understandable. “We have a lot of debt that we don’t know about,” Elizabeth said.
Woodruffs withdraw money from their retirement accounts. Their siblings kicked in to pay some bills.
Elizabeth got a job as a social worker at Hospital, Our Lady of Lord’s Memorial Hospital, a Catholic institution that is now part of the Ascension Chain. But it did little to deter borrowers.
The hospital sued Nick and was ordered to pay an additional $ 9,391 before Elizabeth agreed to reduce the hospital bill by several thousand dollars.
What’s broken: Woodruff’s fight with debt is a common experience for Americans with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
A nationwide survey conducted by KFF found that these people are more likely to end up with medical loans than those who are healthy.
Indeed, sickness is the strongest predictor of medical debt, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute, which looked at county-level debt and disease data across the country.
Of the 100 U.S. counties with the highest rates of chronic disease, about a quarter of adults have medical debt on their credit record. In contrast, Healthy County has less than 1 in 10 loans.
What’s left: Woodruff has been able to pay off some of their debts, and Nick is taking advantage of his disability because he can no longer work.
Elizabeth has a new job, so she doesn’t have to work for the hospital she sued.
They said they felt lucky to be able to pay their bills. “I feel sorry for those who don’t have the resources that we have,” Nick said.
But the couple remained stunned by the aggressive debt collection.
“This hospital prides Catholic values and says they are proud of their charitable work,” Elizabeth said, “but I am amazed at how ruthless they were.”
About this project
“Diagnosis: Debt” is a reporting partnership between KHN and NPR that explores the scale, impact, and causes of medical debt in the United States.
The series draws on the “KFF Health Care Date Survey”, a poll designed and analyzed by KFF 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, in a nationally representative sample of 2,375 U.S. adults, including 1,292 adults with current healthcare loans and 382 adults with healthcare loans. The last five years. The margin of sample error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for full sample and 3 percentage points for those who have current debt. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sample error may be higher.
Additional research was conducted by the Urban Institute, which analyzes data from the Credit Bureau and other populations on poverty, race, and health status to find out where medical debt is concentrated in the United States and what factors are involved with high debt levels.
The JPMorgan Chase Institute analyzed records from a sample of Chase credit card holders to see how the balance of customers could be affected by major medical expenses.
KHN and NPR reporters also conducted hundreds of interviews with patients across the country; Talks with physicians, healthcare industry leaders, consumer lawyers, debt lawyers and researchers; And review studies and survey scores about medical loans.