Adding insult to injury

ADDING INSULT TO INJURY…. Most modern democracies would never let their own citizens go bankrupt because they got sick. The phrase “medical bankruptcies” is an outlandish concept in most of the industrialized world. There’s simply no reason for the United States to tolerate this.

Some of the debtors sitting forlornly in [Nashville’s] old stone bankruptcy court have lost a job or gotten divorced. Others have been summoned to face their creditors because they spent mindlessly beyond their means. But all too often these days, they are there merely because they, or their children, got sick.

Wes and Katie Covington, from Smyrna, Tenn., were already in debt from a round of fertility treatments when complications with her pregnancy and surgery on his knee left them with unmanageable bills. For Christine L. Phillips of Nashville, it was a $10,000 trip to the emergency room after a car wreck, on the heels of costly operations to remove a cyst and repair a damaged nerve.

Jodie and Charlie Mullins of Dickson, Tenn., were making ends meet on his patrolman’s salary until she developed debilitating back pain that required spinal surgery and forced her to quit nursing school. As with many medical bankruptcies, they had health insurance but their policy had a $3,000 deductible and, to their surprise, covered only 80 percent of their costs.

“I always promised myself that if I ever got in trouble, I’d work two jobs to get out of it,” said Mr. Mullins, a 16-year veteran of the Dickson police force. “But it gets to the point where two or three or four jobs wouldn’t take care of it. The bills just were out of sight.”

Although statistics are elusive, there is a general sense among bankruptcy lawyers and court officials, in Nashville as elsewhere, that the share of personal bankruptcies caused by illness is growing.

We’re not talking about families that took unnecessary risks or who are looking for a handout. These are just folks, most of them middle-class, who played by the rules, needed medical attention, and slipped into financial ruin because they couldn’t pay their medical bills.

If policymakers pass health care reform, it wouldn’t entirely fix the problem, at least not right away, but it would make a significant difference: “Bills in both houses would expand eligibility for Medicaid and provide health insurance subsidies for those making up to four times the federal poverty level. Insurers would be prohibited from denying coverage to those with pre-existing health conditions. Out-of-pocket medical costs would be capped annually.”

Just one more reason to get this done.