KRWG

New Mexico Patients, Advocates Push for Changes to Medical Debt Rules

Sep 27, 2021


  Commentary: Patients, advocates and medical providers on Monday testified before a virtual hearing for the Office of Superintendent of Insurance (OSI) to ask OSI to change draft rules to require hospitals, urgent cares, and clinics to connect patients with public assistance for medical bills and to adequately protect low-income patients from being sued or sent to collections for a medical bill--as mandated by the new Patients’ Debt Collection Protection Act. New Mexicans spoke about the need to place affirmative obligations on hospitals, urgent cares, and medical providers to check if patients qualify for protection from lawsuits or being sent to collections, and to remove language that would allow this protection to automatically expire after only 12 months.

Leroy Tso of McKinley County told the hearing officer that several years ago he had to undergo knee and brain surgery and the bills started piling up. He didn’t know how he’d ever come up with the thousands of dollars he owed until he ran into a friend during a follow-up medical appointment and the friend told him about Medicaid. Tso applied and received coverage that paid all the bills he had incurred. 

“It’s pure luck that I ran into a friend who told me about Medicaid,” Tso said. “The hospitals need to help patients qualify for assistance.”

Maria Burcuiaga of Sunland Park had a similar story from the birth of her son in 1995. Burciaga was 36 and wanted to deliver her baby in a hospital, but the hospital told her it would cost up to $10,000 for her to receive that care without insurance coverage. While pregnant, Burciaga worked multiple jobs and sold her own jewelry to try to scrape together the money, until her sister told her about Medicaid. Burciaga applied and received coverage. Her son, who arrived early, received the medical care he needed, as did she when postpartum complications came up. 

“I was glad to be able to focus on getting better and raising my son--not on medical bills,” said Burciaga. “We must require hospitals to screen patients for assistance and protect them from medical debt if they earn a low income.”

Others participating in the virtual hearing expressed concern that the draft rules allow a patient’s designation as low-income to expire after 12 months. 

“With an expiration date on protection,” said Nicolas Cordova, staff attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, “the worst actors will simply wait 12 months until the protection lapses and then swoop in, sending patients to collections or court.”

Advocates, including Sen. Katy Duhigg--who sponsored the law that the rules will put into action--urged OSI to remember that the intent of the bill was to protect low-income patients as the office finalizes the rules. 

Social and racial justice, advocates said, must be served by the rules. 

“This is our moment to be on the right side of racial justice by ensuring there are no loopholes and that all New Mexicans can get the medical care they need without fear of bill collectors and bankruptcy,” said Adriann Barboa, policy director for Strong Families New Mexico. 

The Office of the Superintendent of Insurance is now charged with reviewing all public comment--both from today’s hearing and submitted in writing in advance--and making needed changes to the draft rules before they become final later in the year.

“It is our hope that the powerful stories shared today will help OSI understand that although, overall, the draft rules for medical debt protection are strong, there are key changes that are needed to truly protect low-income New Mexicans from medical debt,” Cordova said.

The draft rules are available online.

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NM Together for Healthcare is a statewide, multiracial coalition of families and community organizations working together to strengthen healthcare access in New Mexico, supported by Strong Families New Mexico, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, and Health Action New Mexico. Follow the campaign on Facebook @NMTogether4Healthcare and Twitter @NMT4HC.