I’m bowled over by how callous they’ve been.

Elizabeth Woodruff

Nick Woodruff, 37, Binghamton, New York

Approximate Medical Debt: $20,000

Medical Concern: Diabetes

What Occurred: Nick Woodruff’s wages have been garnished for the primary time in 2016.

Woodruff, who was identified with diabetes in his 20s, had a very good job. He labored for a truck dealership on this small metropolis 175 miles northwest of New York whereas his spouse, Elizabeth, accomplished her diploma in social work. His job had well being advantages. The couple had not too long ago purchased a house.

However a small an infection on Nick’s foot associated to the diabetes set off a cascade of medical emergencies and monetary struggles that the Woodruffs are nonetheless laboring to place behind them.

First Nick’s an infection unfold to the bone and threatened to overwhelm his immune system. He was hospitalized and suffered injury to his coronary heart and kidneys.

Extra issues adopted. Nick slipped taking place the steps, shattering his foot. Docs later needed to amputate it.

Then got here 1000’s of {dollars} of medical payments, adopted by debt collectors.

“We have been drowning in medical debt, and he was not doing nicely,” Elizabeth recalled. 

The payments have been overwhelming and typically incomprehensible. “There’s loads that we owe that we don’t even know,” Elizabeth stated.

The Woodruffs withdrew cash from their retirement accounts. Their siblings kicked in to repay some payments.

Elizabeth bought a job as a social employee on the hospital, Our Girl of Lourdes Memorial Hospital, a Catholic establishment that’s now half of the Ascension chain. However that did little to forestall the debt collectors.

The hospital sued Nick, and he was ordered to pay a further $9,391 earlier than Elizabeth persuaded the hospital to decrease the invoice by a number of thousand {dollars}.

(Heather Ainsworth for KHN and NPR)

What’s Damaged: The Woodruffs’ struggles with debt are a typical expertise for People who’ve persistent diseases resembling diabetes, coronary heart illness, and most cancers.

These persons are extra more likely to find yourself with medical debt than those that are wholesome, a nationwide poll conducted by KFF discovered.

The truth is, sickness is the strongest predictor of medical debt, in keeping with an evaluation by the City Institute, which checked out county-level debt and illness knowledge throughout the nation.

Within the 100 U.S. counties with the very best ranges of persistent illness, almost 1 / 4 of adults have medical debt on their credit score information. Against this, within the healthiest counties fewer than 1 in 10 have debt.

What’s Left: The Woodruffs have managed to pay down some of their debt, and Nick is on incapacity advantages as a result of he’s not in a position to work.

Elizabeth has a brand new job, so she doesn’t need to work for the hospital that sued them.

They stated they really feel fortunate to have been in a position to pay many of their payments. “I really feel sorry for the individuals who don’t have the assets that we did,” Nick stated.

However the couple stays shocked by the aggressive debt collections.

“This hospital boasts Catholic values and states they take delight of their charity work,” Elizabeth stated, “however I’m bowled over by how callous they’ve been.”

About This Challenge

“Analysis: Debt” is a reporting partnership between KHN and NPR exploring the size, affect, and causes of medical debt in America.

The sequence attracts on the “KFF Health Care Debt Survey,” a ballot designed and analyzed by public opinion researchers at KFF in collaboration with KHN journalists and editors. The survey was carried out Feb. 25 by March 20, 2022, on-line and through phone, in English and Spanish, amongst a nationally consultant pattern of 2,375 U.S. adults, together with 1,292 adults with present well being care debt and 382 adults who had well being care debt prior to now 5 years. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 proportion factors for the complete pattern and 3 proportion factors for these with present debt. For outcomes based mostly on subgroups, the margin of sampling error could also be larger.

Extra analysis was conducted by the Urban Institute, which analyzed credit score bureau and different demographic knowledge on poverty, race, and well being standing to discover the place medical debt is concentrated within the U.S. and what elements are related to excessive debt ranges.

The JPMorgan Chase Institute analyzed records from a sampling of Chase bank card holders to have a look at how prospects’ balances could also be affected by main medical bills.

Reporters from KHN and NPR additionally carried out a whole lot of interviews with sufferers throughout the nation; spoke with physicians, well being trade leaders, shopper advocates, debt legal professionals, and researchers; and reviewed scores of research and surveys about medical debt.

Noam N. Levey: [email protected], @NoamLevey