A look into the impact of medical debt in Washington, Oregon

FOX 12 Investigators looked at how people in Washington and Oregon are impacted by medical debt.
Published: May. 5, 2022 at 7:03 AM PDT
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - A trip to the emergency room can change your life not just medically, but also financially. FOX 12 Investigators looked at how people in Washington and Oregon are impacted by medical debt.

Like many people, Brandon Cline, a single dad from Washington, lives paycheck to paycheck. It started when he became the primary breadwinner for his family at just 16, after his father suddenly passed.

“I got a job at GameStop trying to help my mom with just finances and whatnot, and kind of followed that trend of just working odd, you know, retail jobs,” said Cline.

Eventually, he landed a job at a grocery store with health insurance.

“But I mean, I didn’t make that much,” said Cline. “I made maybe $125 a week or so, and the co-pay on a visit was about a hundred bucks.”

“I couldn’t really go to the doctor,” he continued. “It just wasn’t cost effective for my situation, so I ended up just using the hospital as pretty much my doctor’s office if I have some sort of problem, because they didn’t charge me upfront.”

Cline said he visited the emergency room around six or seven times in a seven-year period, mainly for anxiety attacks, where he thought something was seriously wrong.

“I mean, at one point, I think it was probably close to like $6,000 or $7,000 in debt,” he said.

But he recently received a letter in the mail from RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that pays off medical debt across the nation, by randomly selecting families making less than two times the federal poverty level.

“And it was probably about three grand,” said Cline. “And I remember looking at it, just going like this is a scam.”

“And then eventually on my credit report, it had shown up that this giant chunk was gone,” he continued. “And so I went, oh okay, I guess it’s real, and just reached out to them and gave my thanks.”

Nationwide, RIP Medical debt has paid off about $6 billion in medical debt in collections since 2014.

Between Oregon and Washington, RIP Medical Debt has paid off more than $60 million for more than 66,000 people.

“It felt like a bunch of things I thought I never might be able to do,” said Cline. “I don’t have to worry anymore about that, about money, and it’s a huge relief.”

Americans are burdened with at least $140 billion in outstanding medical debt, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

For people in Washington with medical debt in collections, the average amount owed is $606. That’s according to The Urban Institute. In Oregon, it’s $618.

In Multnomah County, around 5% of people have medical debt in collections. That percentage is under 5% in Washington and Clackamas counties. In Clark County in Washington, around 5.5% of people have medical debt in collections.

For Cline, even after getting help, he’s still not completely debt-free.

“It doesn’t seem as insurmountable as it once did,” said Cline. “But yes, there’s still debt there that I need to figure out how to get rid of.”

“The cost is just too much, you know, for I think average people,” continued Cline. “It’s just too much.”