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House passes bill to relieve impact of medical debt

A Black man with close cropped gray hair and wearing a suit stands at a podium and speaks into a microphone. Signs on the podium read "Pass the Debt Fairness Act" and "Lend patients a hand."
Rev. Alfred Babington-Johnson speaks at a rally in the rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol. (Photo credit: CBJ Reporter Jasmine McBride)

The Minnesota House passed a commerce policy bill Monday that will ease the burden of medical debt on consumers. The bill incorporates many provisions of the Debt Fairness Act, including banning providers from denying necessary medical care to Minnesotans with outstanding medical debt. Other reforms include banning the practice of transferring a dead patient's medical debt to a surviving spouse, as well as prohibiting medical providers from reporting unpaid medical debt to credit bureaus. 

Community members came forward at a public hearing to share what passing this bill means to them. Amongst the hundreds that joined at the Capitol in support of this bill was Barb Anderson, who spent the early years of motherhood battling her son’s Leukemia. Anderson says a bill like this would have made this challenging time a bit more manageable. 

“I wasn't able to work anymore because I had to care for him. So not only did we have a lot of medical debt, but we went from being a two income family to a one income family. It all hit at once, and it was really, really stressful already,” said Anderson. “Knowing that it wouldn't hurt our financial situation long term – in terms of being reported to credit bureaus or having wages garnished – I think it would have taken away some of the stress.”

Anderson says even though her now 12-year-old son is embarking on his eighth year Leukemia free, she felt compelled to stand in solidarity with others who are faced with the challenges of medical debt. She says her village did the same for her, helping her get over the hurdle of the financial burden that fell upon her family during a tough time.

“Thankfully, my friends and family started a GoFundMe and we had a lot of help. I’m here because I know not everyone is so lucky to have a network to help them out,” she said.

There were also advocacy organizations and councils in the room who support the bill's provisions of capping debt repayment based on income, hiding medical debt from credit bureaus, and allowing consumers to keep a minimum amount of savings in their bank account – $4,000 – protected from garnishment.

Executive Director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage Linda Sloan says she’s excited to see that debt relief is a big focus of this year’s legislature - something she hopes will move forward with the support of Black champions.

“There are just so many components to this bill that are so valuable, and so needed. I mean, people are making decisions on whether to get married or get divorced because of what's currently on the books -that has got to stop!” said Sloan. “No one wants to be saddled with a ton of debt in the face of necessity. There's so many things that [the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage is] working on right now, but this debt relief one is a big one, and we're so excited that Attorney General Keith Ellison has picked this up as well as the Black church.”

One of the Black champions behind this bill is the CEO of Stairstep Foundation, Rev. Alfred Babington-Johnson. He says Attorney General Keith Ellison proposed a collaboration with him to push this bill forward. 

“The Attorney General, who was often interacting with us, raised the issue about the practices that are going on and the devastating outcomes. And he suggested that the importance of the Black church leading the way would be helpful in getting the job done,” said Babington-Johnson.

The Stairstep Foundation was founded in 1992 to address the crises and challenges that confront African Americans, such as poverty, the education gap, racial disparities in health issues, and the birth-to-prison pipeline. Rev. Babington-Johnson says he stands for this bill because medical debt falling disproportionately on Black families disrupts the community’s economic stability.

“Uniquely important to us as Black people is the fact that when it comes to economic issues such as debt, very often African American people have a disadvantaged outcome,” explained Babington Johnson. “That's also true in respect to health. All the health issues, whether it's diabetes, or obesity, or whatever, or life expectancy – we're at the bottom of the barrel. So when you combine those two issues, the economic disparities and the bad outcomes that come in health practices, we need to make it more possible for Black folk to live lives that are vibrant. And ‘good outcomes’ are expensive.”

Babington-Johnson says it’s crucial to increase awareness of the importance of the issue in order to generate widespread support and hold legislators accountable. 

The bill now has to move through the Senate as part of the Health Policy Omnibus bill.

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