Great Health Divide | Accumulation of medical debt a growing crisis, experts say

Kentucky’s Appalachian counties have higher shares of people with medical debt in collections, statistics show.
Kentucky’s Appalachian counties have higher shares of people with medical debt in collections, statistics show.
Published: Apr. 21, 2022 at 3:17 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WKYT) - Medical debt can be a crushing burden, data shows, for far too many Kentucky families.

Hospital bills can quickly pile up - even to the point of forcing bankruptcy - creating a growing crisis across Kentucky even as non-profit organizations try to help those in debt.

“Every number is a person. Every number is a story,” Josh Miles, mission and family pastor at Westport Road Baptist Church in Louisville, said as he flipped through a spreadsheet showing hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical debt that has been forgiven. “It’s not just individuals. Some of these are families....That’s a wide scope to impact and change people’s lives.”

[Go in-depth | Diagnosed with Debt: Many Americans face financial hardships from crushing unpaid medical bills]

According to the Urban Institute, a non-profit research organization:

  • Overall, 18.1% of people in Kentucky have medical debt in collections, compared to 13.9% nationwide.
  • For people in Kentucky with medical debt in collections, the median amount owed is $520.
  • In Kentucky, 17.4% of people in predominantly white areas have medical debt in collections, but in communities of color that number doubles to 35%.

The share of people with medical debt in collections is also higher in Kentucky’s Appalachian counties. The Urban Institute found:

  • More than a third of people in Carter County (36.79%), Boyd County (34.39%) and Johnson County (33.29%) have medical debt in collections.
  • Of the Kentucky counties with the highest percentages, 13 of 16 are in Appalachia (Carter, Boyd, Johnson, Nicholas, Greenup, Elliott, Magoffin, Lawrence, Morgan, Lewis, Rowan, Menifee and Hart counties) and have shares of more than 25% of people with medical debt in collections.

[Related coverage | Bridging the Great Health Divide]

The congregation of Westport Road Baptist Church donated $15,000 to RIP Medical Debt, a non-profit organization that pays off medical debt for families across the country.

The organization uses donations to buy large bundles of old debt from hospitals and collections agencies, allowing donors to pay off medical debt for pennies on the dollar.

Westport Road Baptist Church’s donation already helped abolish $1.1 million in medical debt owed by 803 people across 97 Kentucky counties and parts of Tennessee, according to their RIP Medical Debt fulfillment report. They will be able to help forgive $600,000 more in debt this year, church leaders said.

“That’s just astounding to say, ‘With something so small, we can be a part of something so big,’” Miles said.

The church learned of the need - not just in their community but across the commonwealth and country - and realized giving to RIP Medical Debt would be a good way to help, Miles said.

He added that he is troubled by findings that medical debt remains a top reason for bankruptcies across the U.S.

“That is not OK,” he said.

[Donate | You can give to RIP Medical Debt here.]

He hopes that others who are able to help will also get involved, too, knowing the burden of medical debt is a heavy cross to bear for many across Kentucky.

“We believe that God has forgiven us, and that we should also forgive the debts of other people in our community,” Miles said. “I think it’s a central part of our own faith, to have the chance to give what we have received in Christ.”

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