Health-Care Bankruptcies Hurt All of Us

By Amy Barger 09-16-2009

A bankruptcy office was not on my dream list of places to work after college. The legal realm seemed opaque and impersonal. I expected a job in a law office to consist of filing court papers and researching statutes -- not interacting with people.

I certainly didn't expect that a bankruptcy office could double as an intimate classroom for learning about human experience.

It's hard to ignore the humanity of bankruptcy clients while photocopying towering stacks of their medical bills. Often, clients would receive so many bills that they'd just stop opening them. In those cases, the legal assistants and clients would crowd around a conference table together and attack the piles of envelopes with letter-openers. During these times, stories started coming out.

One young couple who visited our office had an infant in tow whose rare illness left the family financially devastated. The child -- whose head was slightly enlarged and misshapen from a string of surgeries -- was perched on his petite mother's lap as she tried to list all of her creditors. The child's father had started his own construction business and was having trouble soliciting jobs during a recession. Without employer-provided health benefits, the family budget wouldn't allow for an expensive insurance policy.

By the time they filed for bankruptcy, this young family had already experienced their share of stress and fear; the endless tests and procedures listed on the medical bills could attest to that. Unfortunately, however, the trials didn't end when the treatments were finished. The couple also had to deal with the stigma associated with filing for bankruptcy (bankruptcies are published in local newspapers -- a fact many clients dread). Add to that the personal shame many people feel when they can't pay the medical professionals who cared for them. And don't forget about ruined credit scores and surrendered homes.

Admittedly, plenty of the folks who file for bankruptcy have created their own problems. They've financed cars they can't afford, or they've grown addicted to the easy swipe of credit cards. But many of those who darkened our office door weren't irresponsible; they were hard-working people who lacked the safety nets that many of us enjoy. We regularly filed cases for small businesspeople -- masons, electricians, hairdressers -- who had barely managed to make ends meet until a medical emergency pushed them past their limit.

Even if compassion for the uninsured doesn't move you to support health-care reform, there's a legitimate self-interest argument to make here, too. The uninsured are not the sole victims of medical bankruptcies. The lack of universal health insurance is already dealing a blow to our nation's economy. When people file for bankruptcy, medical providers aren't the only companies taking a financial hit; the debtors' other creditors lose money as well. This hurts all of us.

To suggest that health-care reform will bankrupt our nation, as Bill O'Reilly did on his show in August, ignores the casualties of our current system -- on both the individual and the national level. In fact, to people who've had to liquidate their assets after enduring a life-threatening illness, such a suggestion might feel more like an insult.

Amy Barger is an editorial assistant for Sojourners.

+Click here to tell Bill O'Reilly that Americans are already going bankrupt from health-care costs

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