Remarks by Vice President Harris Announcing Actions to Reduce the Burden of Medical Debt on American Families
South Court Auditorium
4:49 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Okay. Can we hear it for Alex? Please have a seat. Can we hear it for Alex? (Applause.) Thank you, Alex.
You know, I was saying to some of my team in the back — I mean, Alex, first of all, thank you for the courage of telling your story. It’s a story that so many in our country can tell. And — and he really highlights an important facet of this issue, which is: Necessarily, when we’re talking about that much debt, it’s because there has been the need for a lot of medical care. And invariably, then, anyone who has needed that level of medical care over that period of time should be allowed the dignity of being able to focus on their recovery and not, in addition to the burden of recovery, deal with the burden of debt associated with a medical need.
That really does, Alex — you really hit it on the head in terms of what is at the very essence of this issue, in terms of the overlay between the issue of medical care, dignity, and debt — unfair debt — the accumulation of debt that really, in so many ways, paralyzes so many people.
So, Alex, your story is a reminder of the tremendous burden that medical debt forces on so many people.
And today, it is my honor to be joined by a group of leaders who are fighting to ease that burden — members of our Cabinet and our administration, advocacy groups, and healthcare professionals.
So, thank you all for being here.
The President and I know that one of the biggest challenges
facing working families today is the rising cost of living. Helping Americans lower their monthly bills is one of our administration’s top priorities. And that is why we are here today.
There are so many people in our country with stories like that of Alex; so many people — some of whom you might know — who were rushed to the hospital because their appendix burst or because they took a nasty fall and who are still paying off the bill years later.
Parents who have sat in a hospital parking lot afraid to bring their child through those sliding glass doors of the emergency room because they knew if they walked through those sliding glass doors, they may be out thousands of dollars that they don’t have.
Seniors who have to cut their pills in half because they cannot afford more medication. Now, remember, they’re cutting a pill in half, but they’ve been — they’ve been prescribed, for the sake of their health and wellbeing, that they need to take the whole pill. So let’s think about what that means in terms of their health condition and who, because they cannot afford to actually take the full prescription, cut that pill in half and then get sicker and sicker as a result.
Family members with a chronic condition such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes that requires regular treatment and care — treatment and care that can cost hundreds or thousands
of dollars a week, which most people cannot afford.
In fact, one in three adults in our country struggles with
unpaid medical bills. One in three. And of those adults, a disproportionate number are Black or Latino.
I have met so many people in so many communities in our nation who are struggling with this burden — many of whom are managing an illness or an injury at the same time and who stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering if they will ever pay off their medical debt.
No one in our nation should have to endure that. No one in our nation should have to go bankrupt just to get the healthcare they need. And that is why our administration is prioritizing this issue of medical debt — first, by taking action to protect consumer rights.
You know, when I was Attorney General of California, I drafted and helped pass what we named the “Homeowner Bill of Rights” to protect consumers from predatory lending and unfair foreclosure practices.
It was one of the first bills of its kind in our country. And the purpose behind that bill was quite simple: Homeowners must be informed of their rights and those rights must be protected.
The same, of course, is true when we are looking at this issue. Folks need to have the rights. And if they’re not there, let’s put them into law, and let’s also make sure their rights are protected and that they are informed of their rights.
For example, on this issue of medical debt, we know that many people are not aware that they have a right to dispute inaccurate charges on their medical bills or how to file such a dispute, which is why today the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is launching a new public education campaign to help consumers understand and take full advantage of their rights.
Our administration is also taking action against the bad actors — the folks who violate consumers’ rights. To force people to pay medical debt, some debt collection companies harass consumers with dozens of phone calls a week.
Remember what we are talking about — folks who are in the process of attempting to recover from an illness, for example.
Debt collectors that try to collect on debt that has already been paid. Some who pose as law enforcement officials or threaten consumers with jail time.
That sort of harassment and intimidation is unethical and often it is illegal. And that is why the CFPB has made it a priority to hold debt collectors accountable.
Our administration is helping Americans pay off their medical debt also.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Department of Veterans Affairs has cancelled or refunded about $1 billion in medical co-payments for over one and a half million veterans.
Many more veterans are eligible for debt relief, but the process to apply is often consuming, in terms of time, and confusing, in terms of understanding how it works.
The application also can only be completed on paper, as it currently exists, and requires veterans to submit a lot of documents to prove —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: — bless you — to prove their income and eligibility.
So this is why the VA, under the great leadership of all those who are here, has decided to streamline the process for applying for debt relief.
Often, what they are doing is understanding that we have to make it easier. We have to make it easier, and we have the ability to do that. So, part of what they are doing is offering a new, easy-to-use online application. And they’re setting a simple income threshold for eligibility.
So, if you are a veteran who has medical debt, please go online and consider applying. And if you know a veteran, please make sure that they are aware of this opportunity.
We should be clear: Most people with medical debt want to pay it off. To do so, they need financial resources. And too often, having medical debt can be an obstacle to accessing those resources.
This is in large part because of the negative effect medical debt can have on credit scores. Credit scores.
So, credit scores, essentially, are supposed to measure how responsible you are with your money. That’s — it’s just — that’s what it’s supposed to do — so somebody can decide if you are a good bet if you want to borrow money; so that people can decide are you entitled to certain benefits if you are responsible with money or maybe not entitled to those benefits if you’re not responsible with money.
Having medical debt because you were sick or injured should not lower your credit score and make it more difficult to secure the help you need to get out of debt. It’s not logical.
Last month, the three largest credit reporting agencies announced that they will no longer include medical debt in credit scores if an individual has paid their debts, has unpaid debts less than a year old, or has accrued less than $500 in debt.
This is an important first step forward and one that the President and I applaud.
Credit reporting agencies must continue to work toward completely erasing the effects of medical debt on credit reports. And our administration intends to keep an eye on that progress.
At the same time, our administration has directed federal agencies, whenever possible, to eliminate medical debt as a factor in accessing federal resources.
For example, the Department of Agriculture is leading the way by no longer considering medical debt when guaranteeing loans through its Rural Housing Service.
Medical debt makes it more difficult for so many people to afford the necessities of life — to pay the rent and the car bill, to keep the lights on and put food on the table.
President Biden and I believe that every person has a right to affordable healthcare. That is why, in addition to the announcements we are making today, we are continuing to fight to improve financial assistance under the Affordable Care Act, to close the Medicaid coverage gap, and to empower Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for all Americans.
And that is why we will also continue to fight so that all people have the opportunity to succeed and to thrive, free of the burden of medical debt.
I thank you all again — all the leaders who are here, all the folks that you help, all the people that benefit from your hard work. Thank you all, and take care. Thank you. (Applause.)
END 5:00 P.M. EDT