Tuesday, 23 July 2024

Attorney General Rob Bonta, Senator Limón unveil legislation to protect consumers against medical debt

California Attorney General Rob Bonta, Senator Monique Limón (D- Santa Barbara), and a coalition of prominent consumer advocacy organizations have unveiled Senate Bill 1061 (SB 1061), legislation seeking to protect consumers from having their credit ruined by prohibiting medical debt from being reported on credit reports.

Credit reports are meant to gauge an individual’s ability to repay future debt. Medical debt is often unforeseen and not a reliable indicator of financial risk, yet it can unfairly prevent consumers from getting loans, renting an apartment, or getting a job.

“California families should not need to suffer from the harmful and unnecessary impacts resulting from having their credit damaged by medical debt. We have a straightforward solution and need to implement it here in California, just as we have seen some of our sister states do successfully,” said Bonta. “There is no need for medical debt to appear on credit reports and we can stop the harmful spiral where people have unforeseen, catastrophic medical debt and become unhoused, unemployed, or without a vehicle to get to work. To reduce homelessness, to reduce food insecurity, and to address many of California’s other systemic issues, we must utilize upstream interventions that get to the crux of these problems. This is exactly what SB 1061 does.”

“Today a staggering 1 in 5 Californians has reported having medical debt with a disproportionate impact on women and mothers. This debt negatively impacts Californians credit history making it harder to secure a loan, buy a house, or be approved for a credit card,” said Sen. Limón. “Without a robust health care system that covers necessary and often lifesaving medical expenses in a timely, accurate and comprehensive manner, medical debt should not be included on consumer's credit reports.”

“We’ve known for years that medical debt doesn’t predict credit defaults, nor does it accurately predict a person’s desire and willingness to pay off loans,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director of CALPIRG. “We’re hopeful that the legislation introduced by Senator Limón and sponsored by Attorney General Bonta will help create a fair credit system that doesn’t penalize people for life events they can’t control like getting sick.”

"Frontline nurses know that patients with medical debt, especially low-income Californians, delay or avoid medical care because they worry about the impact on their credit reports," said California Nurses Association President Cathy Kennedy, RN. "SB 1061 will help to ensure patients will get the care they need by removing medical debt from credit reports. Then we will have a fair credit system that will not penalize patients when they get the care they need and deserve."

“People can’t control when they will get sick or hurt, and they can’t control when billing disputes and insurance problems will cause debts for expensive medical care to end up in collections,” said Chi Chi Wu, senior attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “This law is necessary to protect consumers from unmanageable and unpredictable medical debts and to address the disparate impact of medical debt on Black households.”

"Getting hit with medical debt isn't like taking out a loan," noted Ted Mermin, director of the California Low-Income Consumer Coalition. "It's not voluntary, it doesn't predict how creditworthy you are, and all too often the amount you're charged is something the healthcare provider basically made up. But there's nothing fictional about the serious negative impact medical debt can have on consumers' credit reports."

"The Consumer Federation of California is pleased to be a co-sponsor of SB 1061 and work with Senator Limón, Attorney General Bonta and all the other fine groups working to enhance consumer protection when it comes to medical debt," said Robert Herrell, Executive Director of the Consumer Federation of California. "Simply put, California is falling behind in consumer protection in this area. States like New York and Colorado are leading the way. Those states have realized that medical debt shouldn't be an anchor dragging consumers down, both personally and via their credit worthiness. California must do better for consumers and this bill is an important step in that direction. This bill will put California back at the front of the line when it comes to consumer protection against medical debt ruining their lives."

"Health care costs are rising, forcing more and more Californians to delay or skip care in fear of getting an expensive medical bill that can lead to debt,” said Katie Van Deynze, policy and legislative advocate for Health Access California, a co-sponsor of the bill. "Black, Latino and low-income Californians disproportionately have medical debt, and counting it against credit exacerbates inequities in health, housing, employment and more. SB 1061 will give all Californians more peace of mind to seek the care they need knowing it will not negatively affect their credit and their future."

The bill sponsored by Attorney General Rob Bonta, the National Consumer Law Center, the CA Nurses Association, Health Access CA, Consumer Federation of CA, CA Low Income Consumer Coalition, Cal-PIRG, and authored by Senator Limón states that:

• Health care providers should not provide information regarding a patient’s medical debt to a credit reporting agency.
• Health care providers should include a provision in any contract entered into with a collection agency that prohibits the reporting of any information regarding a patient’s medical debt to a consumer credit reporting agency.
• Credit reporting agencies should not accept, store, or disclose any information concerning a medical debt.
• Medical debt continues to increase and is a barrier to employment, housing, and the promotion of health care access and equity. The Urban Institute reported 7.8% of California consumers with a credit report had a medical debt listed on it, increasing to 8.5% for Black Californians.
• People with medical debt are more likely to say debt has caused them to be turned down for a rental or a mortgage than people with student loans or credit card debt, increasing their risk of homelessness or being forced to live in substandard housing. Debt can also create barriers for finding employment as employers often use credit reports as a basis for hiring decisions, which in turn, makes it even more difficult to pay off medical debt. Both Colorado and New York have passed laws that prohibit medical debt from appearing on credit reports. In September 2023, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced a rulemaking process to remove medical bills from consumers' credit reports.

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