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Medical Debt Program Helps Des Moines Families Stabilize Their Finances

NHI staff members work closely with clients to help them resolve medical debt. Front (from left): Anna Dianas, Adriene Buchanan. Back (from left): Tony Wilson, Boursy Quang, Lena Hoang.

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Imagine being rushed into emergency surgery to have your lung removed and then finding out later, during a difficult and painful recovery, that you owe more than $150,000 to the hospital.

That was the grim reality that "Ibrahim," a Des Moines, Iowa resident and Sudanese immigrant, faced after he was treated for a life-threatening condition. Ibrahim had applied for Medicaid but because of a processing delay he was not covered at the time of the surgery. When medical bills started piling up, Ibrahim, who did not want to give his real name, worried that he would lose everything.

Building family economic success requires a combination of strategies that help families secure a steady income, stabilize their finances and accumulate savings and assets. Medical debt can derail any progress toward this goal, and for low-income families, it can lead to credit card debt, home foreclosure and even bankruptcy. And as the bills pile up, families often put off regular doctor visits to save money or avoid clinic administrators, a situation that makes them more vulnerable to illness. This combination of poor health and mounting debt can keep a family mired in poverty and despair.

Fortunately for Ibrahim, he got help and avoided financial ruin. He went to the Neighborhood Health Initiative (NHI) in Des Moines where he spoke with Almardi Abdalla, a counselor who contacted hospital officials as well as Medicaid representatives on his behalf. In the end, the hospital forgave much of Ibrahim’s debt. The remaining bills were covered by Medicaid, which retroactively registered him for health care coverage. “Within a couple weeks the hospital wrote to him and told him that they would forgive most of the debt,” Abdalla said. “He was so excited that he came to me and showed me the letter and shook my hand. He was crying. It was really very moving.”

Next: Medical Debt is a Growing National Problem >>