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Court data shows how common medical debt is

High medical costs have left many people in the Shenandoah Valley unable to afford their care.

According to a Northern Virginia Daily analysis of over 100,000 court cases filed between 2010 and 2016, thousands of people in Shenandoah County, Warren County, Frederick County and Winchester are taken to court every year in order to pay debts to medical providers.

The analysis, which uses data provided by Ben Schoenfeld, a computer engineer, of every single general district civil court case filed in the seven-year period, shows the extent to which high medical costs leave patient after patient facing financial trouble. Although people frequently face debts besides those associated with health care, 64 percent of all debt cases during the seven-year period were filed by medical providers.

The high number of medical debt cases could partly reflect the nature of medical debt. Matt Toomey, the vice president of financial services for Valley Health, said that unlike other debts, people don’t anticipate their high medical costs in advance.

“It’s the one debt that people don’t plan on getting into,” Toomey said.

Overall, medical debt is incredibly common. According to a 2017 article from the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research group, nearly 24 percent of non-elderly adults self-reported medical debt.

The number of people who have gone into medical debt has recently gone down, in the region and across the nation. The Urban Institute article found that decreases in medical debt cases were most pronounced in states that expanded Medicaid.

But even in states like Virginia that did not expand Medicaid, the number of medical debt cases declined.

The Shenandoah Valley also experienced a decrease in the number of medical debt cases that were filed over the seven-year period. But the average decrease was slight and wasn’t statistically significant.

Kyle Caswell, an author of the Urban Institute study, said that the change could be evidence of an improving economy.

“As people’s income has gone up, we would expect medical debt instances to go down,” Caswell said.

Insurance rates have also improved in the area following the passage of the Affordable Care Act, something that Toomey pointed to as a possible factor for the drop.

But while the number of medical debt cases has declined in the past seven years, medical costs remain the main form of debt, the analysis shows. In 2016, 57 percent of the 9,352 debt and wage garnishment cases were filed by medical providers.

Some of those cases could be suits against businesses, but Richard Hynes, the John Allen Love Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, found in a 2008 study in the Florida Law Review that the vast majority of debt cases in Virginia were for consumer-related debts.

“They’re probably not rising out of the individuals’ business activity but rather out of their consumer activity,” Hynes said.

That suggests that the vast majority of the thousands of people in medical debt cases are facing debts related to their treatment.

Toomey added that Valley Health provides free and discounted care to people whose incomes fall below certain guidelines, a federal requirement for nonprofit hospitals. Patients can learn more about those programs by calling 866-414-4576 or by emailing financial.counselor@valleyhealthlink.com.

Correction: This article has been corrected to show the correct phone number to consult with Valley Health’s financial counselors.

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