“We didn’t have any hope left”: Medical debt crippling U.S. families

Greeley, Colorado — Jim and Cindy Powers’ medical debt struggles began in 2004, when Cindy required emergency surgery to repair a life-threatening abdominal obstruction. In the hospital, she says, she contracted MRSA, a potentially deadly bacterial infection. That led to 18 more surgeries over a span of five years. 

“It was frightening at times because I knew of at least three times where she died on the operating table and they had to restart her heart,” Jim said. 

If that wasn’t stressful enough, bills began piling up.

“That’s when the phone started ringing off the hook,” Jim told CBS News, who in partnership with Kaiser Health News looked at the devastating costs of medical debt to families

Despite having insurance, the couple now owed nearly $50,000 in medical bills. The couple, who had three children, could not afford to pay it, and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Then, they found out there was more bad news. 

“That’s when we discovered that there was a little over a quarter million dollars’ worth of debt sitting out there,” Jim said. 

At least with Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the Powers’ were keeping their house. 

Or so they thought. 

Four years later, a new mortgage servicer had the house removed from bankruptcy protection and foreclosed. 

“It was hopeless. We didn’t have any hope left,” Cindy said. “It just kept getting worse and worse and worse.”

Many face similar situations. More than 100 million people in the U.S. have been burdened with health care debt, according to an investigation from Kaiser Health News and NPR. 

A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found in the past five years more than half of U.S. adults have gone into debt because of medical and dental bills. One in five said they don’t expect to ever pay it off. 

“Care just costs so much more in the United States than almost anywhere else in the world,” health policy researcher Aaron Carroll said. “There’s just very few people that can pay out of pocket for medical expenses. Health care is super expensive. And even with insurance, unfortunately, it can be too much of a burden for average Americans.”

It’s a burden Cindy carries daily. She said she has guilt and shame for being sick “because it costs us so much money and so much heartache.” 

“It’s always going to be in the back of my mind. What could go wrong next,” she said. “But I try not to live my life in fear and just be really purposeful to have joy and find hope in every day. It’s important.”

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