Why Vermonters carry less medical debt

Published: Apr. 19, 2022 at 5:27 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Medical debt continues to hang over the heads of Americans. The average American with bills in collections are behind nearly $800. In 2019, Vermont hospitals reported $85 million in uncollected medical bills. That sounds like a lot of money, but on average, Vermonters are actually carrying a lot less medical debt than people in most of the country.

Data compiled by our investigative team shows that 5.1 percent of Vermonters have medical debt that has gone into collections. That compares to 13.9 percent nationally. While six states have more than 20% of their citizens in collections. Experts say that’s because Vermont is one of the best-insured states in the country. But even with good insurance can come crippling out-of-pocket costs for care.

“We want Vermonters to be able to get the care they need and the care that their providers recommend,” said Mike Fisher, the chief health care advocate for Vermont Legal Aid. He says there are so many people in Vermont who are worried about going to the doctor because of the potential cost. His organization works to find ways to assist Vermonters who are dealing with the cost of taking care of themselves. “Medical debt sends a particularly bad message to Vermonters and Americans, I suppose, because it sends a message that you shouldn’t get the care you need.”

Unlike in many states, Vermont hospitals, all of which are nonprofit, largely do not sell the debt to collections agencies. They suggest people work directly with the hospitals to help find a payment plan that works. “We want the people who can pay to pay, but otherwise we want to work with people to make sure that they get the care they need at a price they can afford,” said Devon Green with the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. Green says For the hospitals, it all comes back to preventative care. “Ultimately, if you delay care, it can be more costly in the long run and that’s why we want people going into seeing their primary care physician and get care earlier rather than waiting.”

The Vermont Department of Financial Regulation says there are around 30,000 Vermonters with medical debt in collections and tens of thousands more who are paying down medical bills that have not reached collections. DFR recommends careful choices when selecting health insurance plans. If covered by your employer, consider whether the lowest premium, highest deductible plans could expose you to crippling out-of-pocket expenses. And if buying from Vermont Health Connect, see what options can lower your costs.

“You do really want to take a look at the plans offered on the health exchange, the subsidies offered by the federal government, those subsidies are very useful for individuals and families,” said DFR Commissioner Mike Pieciak.

Vermont lawmakers are looking at a bill that would help keep medical debt from being sold to collections agencies. The major credit reporting agencies are also trying to keep most medical debt from impacting credit scores as well.

You can seek help with Vermont Legal Aid’s Office of Health Care Advocate here.

If you’d like to reach out to the Department of Financial Regulation about what you believe is an improper bill you can visit that link here or also contact your hospital’s financial services department.

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