Paul Gibbs: Utah has the chance to ease medical debt for its families

Medical debt and bankruptcy can follow a family for years.

My twin brother Patrick and I required a combined 26 surgeries when we were babies. As the relatively healthy one, I had a mere nine surgeries for the kidney condition I was born with. (Decades later, two more would be added to remove my kidneys and transplant a new one.) Patrick needed 17 for his intestinal problems.

Thankfully, both we and our amazing parents survived this ordeal, but not without lifelong medical problems for Patrick and me, and lifelong medical debt for Mom and Dad.

We were a single-income, blue-collar family and, while my dad was probably the hardest working person I will ever know, he wasn’t exactly making a six-figure salary working for the power company. When all was said and done, over $1 million in debt was accumulated, made worse by inability to pay before the bills were sent to collections (unsympathetic phone calls from collection agencies were a source of stress to my mother throughout my childhood).

While my parents appealed to their families, our church and to various charities for help, this wasn’t enough. Eventually they were forced to declare bankruptcy. The shadow of that medical debt followed them for the rest of their lives. A new bill in this year’s Utah general legislative session could have made things a little easier.

Freshman state Sen. Nate Blouin has introduced SB195, Medical Debt Relief. This compassionate bill would create a Medical Debt Relief Restricted Account, requiring Utah’s Department of Workforce Service to “contract with one or more medical debt relief entities for the purchase and forgiveness of medical debt, specifically debt which has gone to collections.” This would be accomplished through a combination of state appropriations and private funding, and the DWS would report to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

The difference this could make to Utahns and their families is hard to overstate. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2022 analysis of Census Bureau Data, 41% of Americans have medical debt; 6% of adults owe more than $1,000 worth of medical debt; 1% owe more than $10,000. While talk of financial issues always comes back to rhetoric about personal responsibility and “needs vs. wants,” medical debt can not be planned for. Far too many of us are a single medical emergency away from a major financial crisis at a time when healthcare costs are astronomically high. KFF’s report shows that even 16% of households with health insurance experience medical debt.

For family’s like mine that had the joyous addition of two new babies marred by potentially fatal medical problems, that debt can be insurmountable. No amount of careful budgeting or forgoing conveniences (which my family did regularly) fixes the problem. The only choice that could have been made was to accept the loss of one twin to save the other. Of course this was unacceptable, and my brother and I are alive today because our resilient and determined parents wouldn’t give up, no matter how large the mountain of debt that followed.

I implore Utahns to support Sen. Blouin’s bill, and to contact their legislators to respectfully express that support. In particular, I ask them to contact the members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, who will likely make the first crucial decision on whether this bill is heard by the entire legislature. While this bill would not be able to erase all of Utahns medical debt, it would make a difference. And in a state which proudly proclaims its emphasis on families, we cannot leave families to languish under this inescapable burden any longer.

Paul Gibbs lives in West Valley City

Paul Gibbs is an independent filmmaker and health care activist who has lived in Utah since his parents returned here because he needed access to our state’s high-quality medical care. He lives in West Valley City with his wife and two sons.