Government To Incentivize Hospitals To Relieve Medical Debt

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina state government is seeking to rid potentially billions in medical debt from low- and middle-income residents by offering a financial carrot for hospitals to take unpaid bills off the books and to implement policies supporting future patients.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his health chief unveiled a plan Monday that they want federal Medicaid regulators to approve soon, It would allow roughly 100 hospitals that recently began receiving enhanced federal Medicaid reimbursement funds to get even more money.

But to qualify an acute-care, rural or university-connected hospital would have to voluntarily do away with patients’ medical debt going back to early 2014 on current Medicaid enrollees — and on non-enrollees who make below certain incomes or whose debt exceeds 5% of their annual income.

Going forward, these hospitals also would have to help low- and middle-income patients — for example, those in a family of four making no more than $93,600 — by providing deep discounts on medical bills incurred. The hospitals would have to enroll people automatically in charity care programs, agree not to sell their debt to collectors or tell credit reporting agencies about unpaid bills. Interest rates on medical debt also would be capped.

The plan has the potential to help 2 million people in the state get rid of $4 billion in debt, Cooper said, much of which hospitals are never going to recoup anyway.

“It’s clear that by providing relief for medical debt, we give North Carolinians not just peace of mind, but truly a fresh start,” state Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley said at a governor’s mansion news conference.

Other state and local governments have tapped into federal American Rescue Plan funds to help purchase and cancel residents’ debt for pennies on the dollar. Kinsley said North Carolina’s proposed initiative would be different by creating a long-term solution to debt.

North Carolina legislators last year created enhanced Medicaid reimbursement payments for hospitals — called the Healthcare Access and Stabilization Program —alongside provisions that expanded Medicaid coverage in the state to working adults who couldn’t otherwise qualify for conventional Medicaid. Almost 500,000 people already have enrolled for the expanded Medicaid offered since last December. But that hasn’t done away with past debt, Cooper said.

“Large judgments remain on the books that prevent people from buying a house or getting a credit card,” Cooper said. “The weight of medical debt still casts a long shadow. So first we expanded Medicaid, and now we must reduce medical debt to help North Carolinians and our economy thrive.”

The proposal, which Kinsley said was a first of its kind, doesn’t require a new state law and won’t cost the state any additional funds. But the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services must approve the Healthcare Access and Stabilization Program changes sought last week. Kinsley said in an earlier interview that he believes regulators will be “aggressive in their approval.” Cooper’s administration wraps up at year’s end, since he’s barred by term limits from reelection.

To sweeten the deal, the financial possibilities for hospitals in the debt program that agree to debt alterations appear rich. The state Department of Health and Human Services said hospitals that choose to participate would be eligible to share funds from a pot of up to $6.5 billion for next year. Those who don’t can share from $3.2 billion.

The debt relief wouldn’t begin right away, with consumers benefitting in 2025 and 2026, according to state DHHS.

The effort also depends on the willingness of the state’s hospitals to participate. The North Carolina Healthcare Association — which lobbies for nonprofit and for-profit hospitals — said later Monday that the group and its members need more time to review the proposal and look forward to hearing how federal regulators respond.

“North Carolina hospitals and health systems are committed to the care and well-being of all North Carolinians, and we recognize that medical debt is a concern for many,” the association said in a news release, citing hospital efforts for “providing safe, high-quality care to all, regardless of their ability to pay.”

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