I am amazed at how insensitive they were.
Nick Woodruff37, Binghamton, New York
Estimated medical debt: $ 20,000
Medical problem: Diabetes
What happened: Nick Woodruff’s salaries were seized for the first time in 2016.
Woodruff, who was diagnosed with diabetes in his 20s, did a good job. He worked as a truck dealer in this small town 175 miles northwest of New York while his wife, Elizabeth, completed a degree in social work. His work had health benefits. The couple had recently bought a home.
But a small infection in Nick’s leg associated with diabetes has sparked a cascade of medical emergencies and financial struggles that Woodruff is still trying to leave behind.
Nick’s first infection spread to his bones and threatened to overload his immune system. He is in hospital and has heart and kidney damage.
More complications followed. Nick slipped down the stairs, breaking his leg. Doctors later had to amputate him.
Then came thousands of dollars in medical bills, followed by debt collectors.
“We were drowning in medical debt, and he wasn’t doing well,” Elizabeth recalled.
The bills were huge and often incomprehensible. “We owe a lot of things we don’t even know,” Elizabeth said.
The Woodruffs withdrew money from their retirement accounts. Their siblings got involved to pay some bills.
Elizabeth got a job as a social worker at the Hospital, the Memorial Hospital of the Virgin Mary of Lourdes, a Catholic institution that is now part of the Ascension chain. But that didn’t stop debt collectors.
The hospital sued Nick, and he was sentenced to pay an additional $ 9,391 before Elizabeth persuaded the hospital to reduce the bill by several thousand dollars.
What is broken: The Woodruffs’ struggle with debt is a common experience for Americans with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
These people are more likely to have medical debts than those who are healthy as well national survey conducted by KFF found.
In fact, the disease is the strongest predictor of medical debt, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute, which looks at data on county debt and disease across the country.
In the 100 counties in the United States with the highest rates of chronic disease, nearly a quarter of adults have medical obligations in their credit files. In contrast, in the healthiest counties less than 1 in 10 have debt.
What’s left: The Woodruffs have managed to pay off part of their debt, and Nick is on disability benefits because he can no longer work.
Elizabeth has a new job, so she doesn’t have to work in the hospital that sues them.
They said they were happy to have paid many of their bills. “I’m sorry for the people who don’t have the resources we had,” Nick said.
But the couple remains shocked by the aggressive debt collection.
“This hospital boasts Catholic values and says they are proud of their charity work,” said Elizabeth, “but I am surprised at how insensitive they were.”
About this project
Diagnosis: Debt is a reporting partnership between KHN and NPR that examines the scale, impact, and causes of medical debt in America.
The series is based on “KFF Health Debt Study, “A study developed and analyzed by KFF public opinion researchers in collaboration with KHN journalists and editors. The survey was conducted in February. March 25-20, 2022, online and by telephone, in English and Spanish, among a nationally representative sample of 2,375 adults in the United States, including 1,292 adults with current health debt and 382 adults who have had health debt in the past five years. The margin of error of the sample 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 sampling error limit may be higher.
Additional research was conducted by the Urban Institutewhich analyzes the credit bureau and other demographic data on poverty, race, and health to examine where medical debt is concentrated in the United States and what factors are associated with high debt levels.
JPMorgan Chase Institute analyzed records from a sample of Chase credit card holders to look at how customer balances can be affected by high medical costs.
KHN and NPR reporters also conducted hundreds of interviews with patients across the country; talk to doctors, health industry leaders, consumer advocates, debt lawyers and researchers; and reviewed numerous studies and studies on medical debt.