© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Plan to eliminate medical debt for lower-income Milwaukee County residents moves ahead

Medical bill from the hospital.
Irina & Eugene Moskalev
Stock Adobe
Medical bill from the hospital.

A plan that could eliminate medical debt for up to 67,000 lower-income people in Milwaukee County is moving ahead. But caution: any financial relief would still be months away.

Thursday, the ARPA Task Force, which has been advising ways to hand out the $184 M the county received from the federal American Recovery Plan, endorsed the idea of allocating $1.6 M to partner with the group RIP Medical Debt. That's a primarily privately-funded national non-profit that says it has acquired and abolished more than eight billion dollars in medical debt elsewhere, helping more than five million families whose income is below program limits.

RIP Medical Debt says it hopes to erase about $150 M of medical debt in the county.

ARPA Task Force Co-Chair and Milwaukee County Supervisor Shawn Rolland says allocating the federal money makes sense because medical debt causes many bankruptcies.

Supervisor Shawn Rolland represents neighborhoods in Wauwatosa, and portions of West Allis and Milwaukee's westside as 6th District Supervisor.
Supervisor Shawn Rolland represents neighborhoods in Wauwatosa, and portions of West Allis and Milwaukee's westside as 6th District Supervisor.

"We know it harms peoples' credit scores. It harms people's health. It makes people less apt to go have a doctor's visit or pursue that extra medical procedure because of the debt they already have. We know it's a social determinant of health, meaning if you have medical debt, you're more likely to have poor medical outcomes. Milwaukee County's trying to become the healthiest county in Wisconsin," Rolland tells WUWM.

Rolland says locally, medical debt is predominantly among people of color.

ARPA Task Force member Jeff Roman directs Milwaukee County's Office on Equity. He voted in favor of using the federal money as long as the county helps coordinate use with the Milwaukee Health Care Partnership. That consortium includes big hospitals and community health centers that serve diverse patients.

Roman says he also wants to make sure a medical debt disparity is closed.

"That would be an indicator of success for me, for these funds, this investment to close that disparity gap between people of color and white around medical debt," Roman says.

County officials say they want to make sure using the federal money to erase medical debt doesn't harm a plan to potentially use some of the dollars to give pay raises to county correctional officers. Officials will double-check whether the current county budget will fund those raises before the RIP Medical Debt plan goes before the County Board in a few months.

A local volunteer for the debt reduction program, retired health care executive David Eager, acknowledges it would not prevent future medical debt.

"This is a band-aid, if you would, and we're helping people who have medical debt today. It doesn't address that person may have medical debt tomorrow, or in a week, and we fully acknowledge that. We really need to have a broader conversation about how health care is financed in general," Eager says.

County officials say the local RIP Medical Debt program could start by this summer. Residents who qualify would not have to apply. The debt-relief effort would work things out directly with health care providers, then send people a letter saying they have no more medical debt.

Related Content