10.20.09

Whitehouse Holds Senate Hearing on the Impact of Medical Debt

Rhode Island Resident Testifies About Personal Battle

Washington, DC - As the debate over health care reform continues in Washington, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) today held a hearing to examine ways to ease the burden of overwhelming medical expenses on American families. Rhode Islander Kerry Burns joined a panel of experts and victims of medical debt testifying in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts. Whitehouse is chairman of the subcommittee.

"As we in Congress continue working on broad legislation to reform our broken health care system and ensure accessible, affordable health insurance for all Americans, we must also examine a particularly cruel effect of our current system - the millions of Americans struggling with medical debt," said Whitehouse. "Families may be one accident, injury, or diagnosis away from bankruptcy."

Mrs. Burns is a Coventry, Rhode Island resident who lost her home and filed for bankruptcy after her four-year old son endured lengthy hospital stays and eventually died of complications from Cystic Fibrosis. "The emotional hardship my husband and I endured over the course of our son's hospitalization pales in comparison to what we have felt since his loss-losing a child is the greatest injury for a parent and something we would not wish on anyone," said Burns. "As if this loss were not enough to handle, and rebuilding our lives without our son was not hard enough, we have been faced with financial ruin."

Among those also testifying today were Elizabeth Edwards, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and Professor John A. E. Pottow of the University of Michigan Law School.

The panel examined legislation introduced by Whitehouse to assist families struggling under the weight of medical debt. The Medical Bankruptcy Fairness Act of 2009 (S. 1624) would make the bankruptcy process quicker and less expensive for filers with high medical debts and increase their chances of retaining their homes. The bill would allow the retention of at least $250,000 of home value through the bankruptcy process, helping families incurring high medical bills to keep their homes. It would also remove credit counseling requirements that are unnecessary when the cause of bankruptcy is not poor financial management but a medical crisis, and waive the so-called "means test," making the filing process quicker and less costly. This provision would also help ensure that people have the ability to file to have their debts discharged in Chapter 7, the most efficient and simplest bankruptcy process available.

As Mrs. Edwards testified during today's hearing, "This approach would give medical debtors a less burdensome, less catastrophic bankruptcy option that recognizes the unique circumstances that have driven them to bankruptcy. Until our nation implements systemic health reform - and ensures that coverage and care are truly affordable - we must open new avenues for families struggling under crushing medical debts."

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