A wonky Arizona ballot measure could unlock a new path to easing medical debt

Vox | By Dylan Scott |

Is going straight to voters the way to fix America’s medical debt crisis?

Pervasive medical debt is one of the US health system’s signature failings. About 4 in 10 Americans have debt resulting from their medical or dental expenses, according to recent estimates. Attempts to reduce the burden of medical debt have been halting, with special interests mucking up the legislative machinery both in Congress and in statehouses across the country.

That stasis makes a ballot initiative coming up for a vote next month in Arizona worth watching closely. Arizona Proposition 209 would put a cap on the interest rates that can be charged for medical debt: 3 percent. It would also limit debt collectors’ ability to seize a person’s house, belongings, automobile, or wages if they owe money for medical services by exempting more of a household’s assets from forfeiture or garnishment.

The policy itself shares key provisions with model legislation produced by the National Consumer Law Center and addresses some of the crueler debt collection practices, which policy experts say should help to relieve the burden of medical debt, particularly for people who have been taken to court by their debtors and face wage garnishment or the possibility of their house or car being possessed.

“For those people in the most desperate circumstances, this rule change is going to make the process a little bit less cruel for them,” said Joe Gerald, a health services researcher at the University of Arizona.


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