Two top congressional progressives are joining forces with leading health care activists to pressure Washington officials to help ease the burden of patients’ medical debt and predatory practices.
The upcoming “Freedom From Medical Debt” initiative, led by Our Revolution, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and first reported by The Hill, is intended to push Democrats from the White House to Congress to address what liberals see as one of the most pressing national problems: the cost of care.
“Health care is the third rail in American politics,” said Joseph Geevarghese, who leads Our Revolution, a coalition of grassroots members spearheading the debt-relief campaign.
“The truth is, even after the expansion of the ACA, efforts to expand Medicaid through the states, we’re still seeing a significant amount of patients, even patients with health insurance, struggling under the burden of medical debt,” Geevarghese said.
Close ideological allies and personal friends, Khanna and Sanders are authoring forthcoming legislation in the House and Senate this month, while activists are preparing to push President Biden to use executive action to help stop price gouging for vulnerable patients, end a variety of predatory debt collection tactics, and ensure that people seeking medical assistance have financial aid and free or reduced price care available.
The progressive lawmakers are making their case as Biden kicks off his 2024 reelection campaign and after he recently signed a bill announcing the end of the national emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many in a financially vulnerable spot around treatment.
Expanding access to health care and patient protections continues to poll as a reliable and popular position nationally, encouraging Democrats — from former presidents Clinton and Obama to Sanders himself — to lean heavily into the issue during election time.
Our Revolution and Khanna are holding a virtual forum Monday evening alongside advocates from the National Consumer Law Center and Tzedek DC and patients whose lives have been significantly impacted by medical debt and related systematic burdens.
The event is expected to draw testimonies from patients who have suffered long-term harm as a result of the industry’s most pernicious practices, including racking up life-altering debt from cancer diagnoses to strokes and traumatic brain injuries.
“In 2010, I was hit by a car on my bike. I barely survived, had a brain injury, my hand amputated and reattached — costing nearly $1 million,” said Kristin Noreen, a patient from Washington. “Even with insurance, some of that went on credit cards. Now, instead of paying it down, I’m incurring more costs for pain treatments that aren’t covered,” she said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
Elizabeth McLaughlin, a resident from Indiana, said she was debt-free until one experience at the emergency room left her reeling.
“I had no debt until I went to the ER for an injury in 2015 and got hit by a $20,000 bill,” McLaughlin said ahead of the meeting. “Even with insurance and working all my life, I still got saddled with debt.”
Khanna, who is leading the effort in the House, has become a prominent voice within the Congressional Progressive Caucus with an elevated national presence, often tying together a range of policy concentrations with their real-world financial impact for middle- and working-class Americans.
His former role as Sanders’s campaign co-chair in 2020 allowed him to work alongside the Vermont senator on his signature issue, where he attracted massive crowds for his commitment to Medicare for All and railing against what many on the left say are the medical industry’s most damaging anti-patient practices.
As the progressive lawmakers prepare to work through the legislative process on Capitol Hill — and face the political difficulties of the GOP-controlled House — activists are amassing support from dozens of states and key congressional districts that they hope will catch the attention of the White House.
Their goal is to pressure the Biden administration to explore what’s possible through executive action. They also plan to target the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for their support to, as Geevarghese puts it, “get beyond the band-aid” of debt forgiveness and to tackle the broader problem.
“Medical debt is the number one reason for personal bankruptcies in the United States,” Geevarghese said. “We can stop that and the president has the power.”