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Some Ohio cities are erasing medical debts for residents. Will Cleveland join this growing movement?

Robyn King holds up one of the bills she received related to her mother's medical debt. A non-profit is working with communities to buy up, and relieve, residents' health care debts.
Taylor Wizner
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland resident Robyn King had to go to court to fight back when she was asked to take on nearly $77,000 in medical debt after her mother passed away. According to a recently published study, about one in five U.S. households have healthcare debt.

Robyn King knows what it’s like to be weighed down by huge medical bills.

In her southeast Cleveland home, she has a computer bag filled with medical bills totaling almost $77,000 all from Jennings nursing home in Garfield Heights – the place her 90-year-old mother lived until she passed away from dementia in 2020.

King’s mother’s care was mostly covered by Medicare but the nursing home staff said there was a problem with billing in the last few months of her life. The day after her mother’s death, King said she received a letter from Jennings saying they were suing for her mother’s unpaid bills and threatened to put a lien on King’s home.

“I was about to [file for bankruptcy] because I was like, ‘they can't get anything from me if I claim to not have anything.’ And I didn't, I'm raising my family, working in a school.”

Jennings nursing home has not responded to a request for a response to the information shared by King.

King called Legal Aid for help. They represented her in a lawsuit and eventually cleared her mother’s debt.

“I just let out a huge breath. I didn’t know I had been holding in for the past year,” King said.

But most people with mounting medical bills are not so fortunate. About one in five U.S. households have health care debt, according to a recently published study in the medical journal JAMA.

In Ohio, there is a new partnership between some city governments and the non-profit RIP Medical Debt that aims to try to help people with this problem.

The way the partnership works is city governments sign an agreement to fund the health care debt relief. Then RIP uses the money to purchase bundled medical debt at steep discounts, according to the company website.

A year ago, former Toledo City Councilmember Michele Grim heard about how the RIP program worked in Cook County, Illinois and she pushed her city to use some of its unspent American Rescue Plan Act dollars for debt relief.

Robyn King tried to resolve her mother's medical bills during the pandemic. One in five households carry medical debt, according to a recent study.
Taylor Wizner
Ideastream Public Media
King tried to resolve her mother's medical bills during the pandemic and was on the verge of filing for bankruptcy. The program to purchase medical debt aims to help people like King who are struggling with medical bills.

“No one expects to break a leg or break an arm or get cancer,” Grim said. “Medical debt isn’t anyone’s fault. No one asks to get medical debt.”

Grim said city leaders liked her plan so Toledo and Lucas County set aside enough money to clear the debt for more than 40,000 residents.

“If we can prevent somebody from getting evicted because of their medical debt or we can help someone put food on the table, I think it's a really successful program,” she said.

Grim said RIP is still negotiating the details with Toledo-area hospitals.

The program is open to anyone with a high ratio of health care debt, but it is especially helpful for low-income people, said Allison Sesso, President and CEO of RIP Medical Debt. One added benefit is no one needs to apply.

“We send letters in bulk to all of the individuals that qualify for our program and let them know that we have relieved their debt,” Sesso said. “They are free and clear of that debt and that they never have to pay that particular debt ever again.”

Most hospitals agree to sell their patient’s debt to the non-profit because often hospitals aren’t able to collect that money anyway, she said.

The City of Cleveland is in the early stages of exploring this health debt forgiveness program said councilmember Charles Slife. The idea has been floated and council members are currently meeting to discuss it, he said.

Columbus, however, has already eagerly embraced it. Sesso said over the last six months more than 100,000 people in Columbus have received letters saying their debt has been relieved.

John Corlett, the president of the Cleveland-based Center for Community Solutions, said he likes the program but is skeptical that a one-time elimination of medical debt will do much to solve the overall problem.

“I think it needs to be coupled with action by our state and federal policymakers to do what they can do to make sure consumers are protected and to see what we can do to prevent people from ending up in this situation in the first place,” he said.

Medical costs continue to rise for individuals and families because employers are shifting the burden to their workers by offering high-deductible health insurance plans, Corlett said.

Toledo’s Michele Grim was just sworn in as a new member of the Ohio state legislature. She said she’d like to see how the program would work at the state level, but as a Democrat in a body that is controlled by Republicans, it may be an uphill battle.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.