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Cleveland City Council is considering a bill that would erase residents' medical debt

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
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.

Cleveland City Council is considering legislation that would use federal COVID-19 relief money to wipe out residents’ medical debts.

The legislation, proposed on Monday, would use $1.9 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to erase the approximately $190 million of medical debt of about 49,000 city residents, according to a city media release.

The council’s plan comes after Toledo and Columbus proposed or passed similar measures.

Cleveland city officials are exploring a plan already being used by Toledo and Columbus to work with a nonprofit to buy the medical debt of residents from hospitals.

One of the bill’s sponsors Ward 17 Councilmember Charles Slife, who represents West Park and part of the Puritas neighborhood, said medical debt forgiveness fits with the council’s plan to address racial health inequities. In Cleveland, people of color carry a majority of the debt, he said.

“We are able to benefit the entire city, but also be strategic about our equity goals and just realize that this is a chance to help out a lot of people who just have that burden of this debt on their shoulders,” Slife said.

If the legislation passes, eligible city residents will get a letter in the mail notifying them they no longer owe medical debt, said Slife.

“By forgiving medical debt, by getting a letter in the mail saying the X amount of dollars that you owed you no longer owe, that's the immediate way that people can get more money in their pocket for the things that they really need,” he said.

The proposal will next be referred to several committees before it is eventually voted on. To move forward, Cleveland area hospitals would have to agree to sell the debt and the council must approve the funds.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.