Dr. Groton launches campaign to wipe out medical debt


GROTON — A Noanque man is eyeing federal legislation to reform health care debt practices and a proposal from Gov. , decided I didn’t want to wait for it. Government for action.

With a $1,000 seed from consulting firm Health & Technology Vector, Dr. Victor Villagra, a hospital internist before working at Cigna and then starting the company, wiped out $1.6 million in outstanding medical debt in Connecticut. launched a $10,000 crowdfunding campaign to This figure is only on the books of his one organization, which covers his 1,300 people in the state. As of Thursday, it has raised $4,832.10.

So how does it work?

The campaign is run through RIP Medical Debt, a non-profit organization that purchases and forgives debt directly from secondary debt markets and hospitals.

Villagra said that when hospitals and medical institutions cannot collect their debts, they sell them to debt collectors in the secondary debt market. If the agency cannot collect it, RIP Medical Debt will offer to purchase it from them. This can be done for pennies on a dollar as the agency will get zero dollars.

“Healthcare debt is not a problem unique to Connecticut, but a national crisis that affects 1 in 5 Americans,” the campaign said.

Villagra asked the non-profit to distribute anonymously who or who bought the debt, which as of February had about 90 people in New London County in debt.

“I don’t know who they are or where they are, but I call them neighbors,” said Villagra. He asked his neighbors and colleagues if they would donate.

Villagra said that when RIP Medical Debt receives the donation, the organization will send a letter to the beneficiary saying that the medical debt has been cleared and send it to the credit agency to clear their name.

Last month, three major credit bureaus jointly announced that they would not consider medical debt with a score of less than $500.

RIP Medical Debt has a 100% rating from Charity Navigator and has received the Platinum Seal of Transparency from GuideStar. It relieved him of more than $8.52 billion in medical debt for more than 5.4 million families, but “still has a long way to go,” according to the nonprofit’s website.

Villagra’s campaign is currently the only campaign listed in Connecticut.

In 2020, Mystic Congregational Church joined 121 other churches to raise $200,000 for RIP medical debt and eliminate $26.2 million in medical debt. Pastor Christus Wenson said in her news release, “Like Jesus fed his 5,000 people he fed two fish and a few loaves of bread, doubling the resources we have to the resources we need.” It’s a thing,’ he said.

What remains disappointing for Villagra, however, is that the situation that drives people into medical debt has not improved.

Medical Debt Investigation in Connecticut

After practicing internal medicine at Geisinger Medical Center in central Pennsylvania in the 1980s and ’90s, Villagra moved to Connecticut to work for Cigna. He left the company in his 2002 to launch the Health & Technology Vector. The company primarily works on population health, delivery system redesigns, and technology assessments.

Villagra was appointed Professor at UConn Health and later Vice Director of the Institute for Health Disparities.

A few years ago, he began researching small claims related to medical debt, obtaining data from small claims courts across the state about hospitals and doctors suing patients.

He and UConn’s team combed through the data and found that between 2011 and late 2016, hospitals and doctors sued more than 85,000 Connecticut residents, recovering more than $110 million in medical debt. I was. And this only included cases involving less than $5,000 in debt.

Villagra published some of his findings in June 2019 and submitted them to the High Deductible Health Plan Task Force convened by Congress. He revealed that Danbury Hospital was responsible for nearly half of his 13,824 medical debt lawsuits filed in Connecticut in 2016.

Within six days of the Hartford Business Journal reporting on “CT’s most litigated hospital,” Danbury Hospital announced a change in its patient litigation policy.

Villagra also went back to the data to look at the distribution of the defendants and overlaid it with census data, although the data itself did not contain information on income, race, or ethnicity. This shows that the people being sued are disproportionately concentrated in majority minority and low-income areas.

Looking at 85,000 patients, he also asked whether they could trust the doctors who complained to them and whether they felt anxious or depressed.

“This is not something people want to talk about. We don’t bring up medical debt at cocktail parties,” Villagra says.

Proposed Actions at the State and Federal Levels

Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy invited doctors to a series of town meetings on medical debt after seeing Villagra’s report. Villagra attended a roundtable discussion at Three Rivers Community College in February 2020 and his Murphy listening session in Meriden in December 2022.

Last November, Senators Murphy and Senator Chris Van Hollen (D, Maryland) reintroduced legislation to strengthen consumer protection and health care debt transparency.

The proposal also directs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to create a public database that tracks medical institution debt collection practices. These include whether you use a debt collection agency, how your debts are assigned to the agencies, and how many ad hoc collections you do. started.

In a press release at the time, Murphy said, “We need to shine a light on hospitals that are abusing their patients with overly aggressive debt collection practices.

Murphy said this week he has been grappling with health care debt for 20 years, having worked in the state Senate in 2003 to pass a Connecticut law on health care debt.

“At the time, the villain was Yale[New Haven Hospital],” said Murphy. “Since then, Yale has had the best match, the lowest recovery rate, and other hospitals have jumped to a disgraceful lead.”

The federal bill he introduced was modeled after Connecticut law, and Murphy said he “spent a lot of time pitching this bill to Republicans,” but it failed to gain bipartisan support. .

The law has gone nowhere, but Murphy believes HHS or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could put pressure on insurance companies and debt collection agencies in the meantime.

“There are stories of individuals who are left with debt and are having difficulty maintaining good credit or getting into housing,” Murphy said. People who don’t go to the hospital when they do, because they’re afraid they have outstanding bills.Many of those people have insurance.They just have high deductibles.”

Governor Ned Lamont’s office noted in a February press release that medical debt causes two-thirds of personal bankruptcies.

At that time, Lamont, as part of the governor’s biennial budget proposal, called for the federal bailout of America to “contract nonprofits to buy health care debt and pay it off at a fraction of the original cost.” announced a proposal to invest $20 million in planning law dollars.The Lamont administration estimates that the investment could reduce health care debt by $2 billion.

“Several states and local governments have had great success using this model to cancel their residents’ medical debt, and we believe this is absolutely the right way to use this COVID recovery fund.” said Lamont in a press release.

A November article in the nonprofit news organization NextCity said the City of Toledo, Ohio, and the Cook County, Illinois Commission were among the government agencies that approved ARPA funding for RIP medical debt.

e.moser@theday.com





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