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Meck communities of color suffer double the medical debt

Our months-long WBTV investigation has shed light on the massive expenses faced by people who spent mere hours in the hospital.
People in communities of color are much more likely to be in collections than in majority white communities.
Published: Apr. 29, 2022 at 1:35 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Medical bills continue to cripple families in our community and new data from the Urban Institute shows the impact is felt much more keenly in communities of color.

Our months-long WBTV investigation has shed light on the massive expenses faced by people who spent mere hours in the hospital. But an analysis of bills that have fallen into collection shows millions of Americans share a similar burden.

Data from the Urban Institute shows nearly one-quarter of South Carolinians are facing collections for unpaid medical bills and that in both Carolinas people in communities of color are much more likely to be in collections than in majority-white communities.

Even though it’s an issue faced by so many people it often escapes serious scrutiny because it’s tough to discuss.

Even though it’s an issue faced by so many people it often escapes serious scrutiny because it’s tough to discuss.

“Is it difficult to talk about this? Financial debt, money problems?” a WBTV reporter asked Patrick Oliver.

“It’s personal, really,” Oliver said.

“It’s not fun to have to share your story with all of Charlotte to get this taken care of,” the reporter said.

“Exactly.”

Patrick and Mary Oliver first agreed to open up about their journey with medical debt in January. WBTV found a lawsuit filed against them by Atrium Health, claiming they owed more than $17,000 after Patrick spent just 24 hours in the ER. There were more than one hundred other lawsuits filed by Atrium in 2021 alone against patients who allegedly had unpaid bills.

After WBTV’s first report, Atrium dismissed its lawsuit against the Oliver’s.

“Since this came out, a lot of other stories have come out,” Mary Oliver said.

“We weren’t the only story.”

New data from the Urban Institute shows there are millions of stories just like Oliver’s across America.

Their research shows the typical American has $774 of medical bills in collections. In North Carolina, that number is $757 and in South Carolina, it’s $980.

In Mecklenburg County, the typical amount of debt in collections per person is $895, and in York County, $1,008. In Cleveland County the amount of medical debt in collections is $1,721, ranking 37th out of more than three thousand counties nationwide.

“Stop destroying people’s lives and their credit ratings based on a product that they did not want to consume and they weren’t told what it cost,” North Carolina State Treasurer Dale Folwell said.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell has been a leading voice for transparency in healthcare pricing and making sure families like the Olivers receive financial assistance from non-profit hospitals receiving tax breaks.

But Folwell has also opened himself up to the world of medical debt collections by intentionally not paying a bill for a recent procedure. He let some of the bills lapse before trying to submit a payment.

“After eight attempts to call a billing department they said that account is no longer here, we no longer have that account,” Folwell said.

“I said I’m trying to give you money toward this. Well, we have sold that it’s in collections.”

Medical debt in collections is felt much more acutely in communities of color. In Mecklenburg County, just ten percent of people in majority-white communities have medical debt in collections, while in communities of color it’s more than double.

“We’re not the only ones,” Mary Oliver said.

“Anytime I speak with someone about their credit, that’s what’s on there.”

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