If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.
Some lost their homes. Some emptied their retirement accounts. Some struggled to feed and clothe their families. Medical debt now touches more than 100 million people in America, as the U.S. health care system pushes patients into debt on a mass scale. Debtors are from all walks of life and all corners of the country. Here is one story.
Edy Adams, 31, Austin
Approximate medical debt: $131
Medical issue: Sexual assault
What happened: Edy Adams had just graduated from college when she was sexually assaulted in 2013.
She was living in Chicago and believes she was drugged while at a bar.
Adams doesn’t remember what happened. When she woke up the next morning bruised and confused, she contacted the police and was directed to get an exam at a local hospital emergency room, which confirmed the assault.
Police never found the perpetrator. Then, two years later, Adams started getting calls from debt collectors saying she owed $130.68.
At first, Adams was confused. The hospital had told her that Illinois law prohibited medical providers from charging rape victims for a medical exam.
“I thought someone didn’t put in the proper billing code or something,” said Adams, who is now a medical student in Texas.
She explained the situation to the debt collector, who said the company would put a note in her file.
Nevertheless, about six months later, another call came from another debt collector seeking the same $130.68.
Adams again explained the situation. A few months later, there was yet another call.
It kept on for years, as her small debt was passed from one collector to another.
Adams tried to contact the hospital, but the bill was not theirs. It had originated with a physicians’ practice that had closed.
Sometimes when the debt collectors called, Adams would break down in tears on the phone. “I was frantic,” she recalled.
With each call, Adams said, she was forced to relive the worst day of her life and explain her trauma to a disembodied voice in a call center somewhere in America.
“I was being haunted by this zombie bill,” she said. “I couldn’t make it stop.”
What’s broken: Federal regulators and consumer advocates for years have documented widespread problems across the debt collection industry, calling out collectors for not doing enough to verify and document bills before pursuing consumers.
The problems are particularly acute in medical debt collection. From 2018-21, people contacted about a medical debt complained most frequently to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about being hounded for a debt they did not owe, the agency found.
And in a nationwide poll conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation, a third of Americans who had been contacted by a collection agency because of a medical or dental bill said the debt was not theirs.
What’s left: Adams found relief only after the last debt collector reported the bill to a credit reporting agency, which lowered her credit score.
Adams petitioned the agency to have the debt removed, which it quickly did.
Adams said she didn’t begrudge most of the people who called her over the years. “It seemed like they were only cogs in this giant debt machine,” she said.
Kaiser Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at Kaiser Family Foundation. KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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