David Neff

Medical Debt Is Crippling America and There Is Little Hope for the Future

David Neff details the shortcomings of our current healthcare system as the topic is made relevant again by John Oliver’s recent act of charity.


Comedian John Oliver was recently hailed as a philanthropist after he purchased $15 million in medical debt and forgave the aggregate. While his generosity should not be ignored, the contribution is a drop in the proverbial bucket of debt that has plagued Americans throughout the last few decades. Unfortunately, the incorporation of Obamacare has been little more than a bandage over the issues that still fester beneath the surface.

According to The Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, 42.9 million Americans have outstanding medical bills. These range from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars that people are unable to repay. As of 2015, the total amount of medical debt totaled over $12 trillion. This staggering number is around 48% of all money owed to banks, debt collection agencies, and other lenders. Unfortunately, the culprits are the same agencies that American taxes bailed out after the Great Recession in 2008.

Recently, a close friend sustained an injury on the job, but the company questioned the veracity of her claim. This should not have been an issue if she had access to a truly comprehensive insurance plan. However, the deductible for anything more than a routine doctor visit was a few thousand dollars. My friend, unable to afford the expense, was only able to visit her general practitioner who prescribed antibiotics and over-the-counter painkillers. What the doctor failed to realize was that beyond a surface injury were broken bones that eventually became infected. I was witness to a gruesome turn of events that led to my friend’s thumb turning black and swelling to over twice its normal size. By the time x-rays were taken, my friend had incurred thousands of dollars in expenses that were not covered by her basic insurance plan. To this day, she continues to receive calls from debt collectors for money she can’t afford to pay.

In order to even begin a nearly insurmountable task of reducing debt, lawmakers must be petitioned to enact reforms that would inevitably make them very unpopular with many lobbyists. Over the last 30 years in particular, the federal government has parroted the diatribes of insurance companies verbatim. This symptom is most certainly not the sole domain of far-right, free-market advocates. Many Blue Dog Democrats are just as culpable of taking lobbyist bribery in exchange for job security. In February 2016, the FEC reported that Hillary Clinton had accepted over $4 million in lobbyist contributions from her so-called enemies in the insurance industry, including Blue Cross Blue Shield. This now-commonplace coalition has effectively torn apart the American Dream. Families are being forced to spend large portions of every paycheck to keep the wolves at the door from dismantling their lives.

When the idea of a comprehensive, inclusive insurance plan is brought to public attention, the arguments which ensue invariably evoke socialism and a welfare state. Americans have been ingrained with the idea that money is a sacred right (for those fortunate enough to have high-paying jobs), and the government should play a minimal role in how that money is spent. What tends to be neglected is that even if it took 40% – 50% of a person’s monthly income, “free” healthcare would still cost less over the course of a person’s life. After all, when people are currently making less than they owe to medical debt, not even the staunchest conservative can argue that a high quality of life exists.

Almost since the inception of this country, politicians have been (somewhat fairly) accused of spending to excess. Usually these accusations are due to pet projects that serve no purpose, which brings to mind Sarah Palin’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” Members of congress on both sides of the aisle are not averse to spending taxpayer money, but for once, they could do some good. Americans must persuade their elected officials to spend their money not on private contractors, but on a truly comprehensive health plan. This requires a rejection of the lobbying firms that dominate the political conversation.

Sadly, this realization may have entered the public discourse too late. If there is no financial benefit to a political stance, the advocates for reform are few and far between. By ignoring actual facts while propagating the idea of the American Dream, politicians and their lobbyist cronies can continue to cash in at the expense of this country’s citizens.




David Neff

David Neff is a freelance writer with a background in political science and print journalism. He covers science, technology, and politics; and how they relate and affect our daily lives.

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