Canceling Medical Debt Is a Moral Imperative

The US’s monstrous for-profit health system saddles millions of workers with debt for the crime of seeking medical treatment. We desperately need to cancel all medical debt, even as we continue to fight for Medicare for All.

According to a study earlier this year, a third of all US workers struggle with medical debt, a number that’s growing amid the pandemic. (Unsplash)

In less than a year, our government’s criminally negligent response to the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed over a quarter-million lives. And those who seek treatment are not only up against the horrors of a deadly virus — they risk being buried in medical debt as well. Insured and uninsured patients alike, and even their loved ones, can face tens of thousands of dollars of medical bills.

As talk turns to student debt cancelation, we shouldn’t forget the monstrosity of medical debt in the United States. Pushing for Medicare for All, which would prevent all future medical debt, is essential. But we must also right past wrongs and cancel all existing medical debt, delivering real relief to millions of US workers.

According to a study earlier this year, a third of all US workers struggle with medical debt, a number that’s growing amid the pandemic. Medical debt pushes hundreds of thousands of people into bankruptcy every year and forces families to tighten their spending on essential needs. In a Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times survey, 70 percent of those struggling to pay medical bills say they cut back spending on food, clothing, or other basic household items. Forty-one percent say they did not fill a prescription in the past year.

Medical debt can trap its victims in a lifelong Sisyphean cycle. Unpaid medical bills lead to collections agencies, which can hound families to the grave. Getting a job, buying a car, renting an apartment, securing a mortgage, or applying for a credit card can all be made much more difficult. Ruined credit scores can set in motion further snowballing effects, like having to pay outrageous interest rates to payday lenders. Or forgo further medical treatment: in 2019, half of US adults said they or a family member has had to put off care due to cost.

That’s appalling enough in normal times. But amid a raging pandemic, throwing up barriers to care through co-pays and deductibles jeopardizes everyone’s health. Nearly half of Americans can’t handle a $1,000 emergency, while the average single deductible is nearly $2,000.

And because the United States ties insurance to employment, the recession is turning private insurance into a luxury as millions of workers lose their jobs. The communities hit hardest by the coronavirus, such as undocumented immigrants, largely do not have any health insurance coverage at all. Everywhere you look our ability to confront COVID-19 has been undercut by the United States’ deadly for-profit health system.

So the moral urgency of canceling medical debt is clear. What will be more difficult in the immediate term is getting it done. Unlike student loan debt — which can be wiped out through executive order because the government holds the debt — medical debt cancelation would have to make it through Congress. A Senate in the iron grip of Senator Mitch McConnell is where medical debt cancelation goes to die. (Presidents have leeway to spend or seize property through emergency executive order, but it would be an uphill legal battle.)

Nevertheless, abolishing medical debt is morally just and politically wise. It would redistribute wealth to the working class and bolster support for Medicare for All and the democratic-socialist project more generally. It should remain high on our political agenda.

As we fight to remove the profit motive from health care and make health care free to everyone at the point of service, we owe it to those who have been price-gouged into medical debt to cancel all of it. In the wealthiest country on earth, we can prevent these tragedies from ever happening again — and restore dignity to every family struggling with medical bills.