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Los Angeles County launches ambitious plan to tackle medical debt. Hospitals groan

Molly Castle Work, KFF Health News on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County has launched one of the most ambitious efforts in the nation to tackle medical debt, targeting hospitals for their role in feeding a $2.9 billion problem.

For over a year, the nation’s most populous county has worked on a comprehensive plan to track patient debt and hospital collection practices; boost bill forgiveness for low-income patients; and buy up and forgive billions in medical debt — an effort helmed by its Department of Public Health.

Though LA County isn’t the first government entity to confront this crisis, what sets it apart is how it casts medical debt not as a political issue, but as an urgent public health threat as prevalent as asthma and diabetes.

“Nobody in the county of LA who is facing economic limitations should have that impact their ability to get the kind of health care, the kinds of services and support that we all need and are essential to optimal well-being,” public health department director Barbara Ferrer said at a medical debt symposium April 10.

Mona Shah of Community Catalyst, a national health equity and policy organization, called the county’s efforts bold — tackling the root causes of medical debt, in addition to providing immediate debt relief, with input and participation from health plans, hospitals, community organizations, and government partners. Shah said the county’s population of about 10 million adds to the significance of its initiative.

But on the eve of the symposium, the local hospital association called on the county to revise its plan.

 

“We believe the proposed DPH [Department of Public Health] debt relief program and data collection effort will only burden hospitals with unnecessary requirements, without ultimately helping to address the underlying issue,” wrote George Greene, CEO of the Hospital Association of Southern California, in a letter to the LA County Board of Supervisors.

Many of the county’s recommendations would require hospitals to change their processes and add reporting duties. For instance, the county is asking hospitals to inform it when patient debt is sent to collections and pressing hospitals to improve access to financial assistance programs. Although state law requires hospitals to provide assistance, patient advocates say many don’t make it easy for patients to access.

Adena Tessler, LA County regional vice president for the hospital association, told KFF Health News the industry provides ample financial assistance and that the county is putting too much emphasis on hospitals’ role in the debt crisis, when other sectors of the health care system, such as insurers, should share the blame.

Tessler said the county plan should include all players, including health plans, provider groups, and ambulance providers.

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©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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