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Medical Debt Program Helps Des Moines Families Stabilize Their Finances (Continued)

Medical Debt is a Growing National Problem

NHI partnered with The Access Project (TAP), a Boston-based resource center for communities working to improve healthcare access, to set up the medical debt program. Since 1998, TAP has helped hundreds of people regain their financial footing following a hospital stay, accident or emergency surgery. In 2007, TAP received funding through the Annie E. Casey Foundation to replicate its Medical Debt Resolution Program in several communities, including Des Moines. So far, the NHI program, which receives funding from Iowa Health-Des Moines, has helped clients to retire more than $300,000 in debt.

Health care costs have skyrocketed in recent years and so has the price of insurance. From 2000 to 2005, health insurance premiums increased by 73 percent, while workers’ wages rose by only 15 percent. As a result, many companies have cut healthcare benefits and many workers have had to make due with insufficient coverage or, in some cases, no coverage at all. With each passing year, more and more families face staggering medical expenses.

A 2007 survey of low- and middle-income households by TAP found that nearly a third, or 29 percent, reported that medical expenses contributed to their credit card debt. A 2005 survey of eight cities including Des Moines found that nearly half, or 46 percent, of working, low-income families had medical debt, and of those, a quarter, or 27 percent, had housing problems as a result.

"Medical debt is a national problem," said Mark Rukavina, director of TAP. "The most recent national data shows that one in four American adults under 65 years of age had medical debt. That jumped from one in five adults just two years earlier."

Rukavina and his team arrived in Des Moines in April 2008 and trained outreach workers from NHI and A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy (AMOS), a faith-based group formed by local religious leaders and their congregations. Accounting staffs from two large hospitals also attended, said Becky Miles-Polka, a consultant with Making Connections, a Casey Foundation project launched in 1999 in Des Moines and nine other cities. The decade-long initiative builds partnerships of residents, community-based organizations, local government, businesses, and others, to strengthen vulnerable families’ connections to economic opportunity, positive social networks and effective services and supports. Other Making Connections sites include: Denver, CO; Hartford, CT; Indianapolis, IN; Louisville, KY; Milwaukee, WI; Oakland, CA; Providence, RI; San Antonio, TX; and Seattle, WA.

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