Down Debt

Why Vermonters have less medical debt

BURLINGTON, Vermont (WCAX) – Medical debt continues to weigh on the heads of Americans. The average American with bills in collection is behind nearly $800. In 2019, Vermont hospitals reported $85 million in uncollected medical bills. That sounds like a lot of money, but on average Vermonters actually have far less medical debt than people in most of the country.

Data compiled by our survey team shows that 5.1% of Vermont residents have medical debt that has been collected. That compares to 13.9% nationally. While six states have more than 20% of their citizens in collections. Experts say that’s because Vermont is one of the best-insured states in the country. But even with good insurance, healthcare costs can be crippling.

“We want Vermonters to be able to get the care they need and the care recommended by their providers,” said Mike Fisher, the lead health care advocate for Vermont Legal Aid. He says there are so many people in Vermont who fear going to the doctor because of the potential cost. His organization is working to find ways to help Vermonters who face the cost of caring for themselves. “Medical debt sends a particularly bad message to Vermonters and Americans, I guess, because it sends the message that you shouldn’t be getting the care you need.”

Unlike many states, hospitals in Vermont, which are all nonprofits, generally do not sell debt to collection agencies. They suggest people work directly with hospitals to help find a payment plan that works. “We want people who can pay to pay, but if not, we want to work with people to make sure they get the care they need at an affordable price,” said Devon Green of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. Green says For hospitals, it all comes down to preventative care. “At the end of the day, if you delay care, it can be more costly in the long run and that’s why we want people to see their primary care physician and get care sooner rather than waiting.”

The Vermont Department of Financial Regulation says there are approximately 30,000 Vermonters with medical debts in collection and tens of thousands more paying medical bills that have not reached collection. DFR recommends careful choices when selecting health insurance plans. If you’re covered by your employer, consider whether plans with the lowest premium and highest deductible could expose you to crippling payouts. And if you’re buying from Vermont Health Connect, see what options can lower your costs.

“You really want to take a look at the plans offered on the health exchange, the grants offered by the federal government, these grants are very helpful for individuals and families,” said DFR Commissioner Mike Pieciak.

Vermont lawmakers are considering a bill that would prevent the sale of medical debt to collection agencies. Major credit reporting agencies also attempt to prevent most medical debt from impacting credit scores.

You can seek help from Vermont Legal Aid’s Office of Health Care Advocate here.

If you would like to contact the Department of Financial Regulation regarding what you believe to be an improper bill, you can visit this link here or alternatively contact your hospital’s Financial Services Department.

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