HEALTH: Somerville city councilor looks to abolish medical debt

Eliminating medical debt for thousands of residents may seem like a daunting task, but Somerville City Councilor Willie Burnley Jr. is up for the challenge.

Burnley is leading the charge by requesting city officials consider allocating $200,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to team up with RIP Medical Debt, a national nonprofit that abolishes medical debt across the country.

If approved by Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, the $200,000 allocation is estimated to reach 5,000 of Somerville’s roughly 80,000 residents as early as this summer, wiping out $4.3 million in debt, Burnley told the Herald on Tuesday.

To be eligible, Somerville residents must have a household income up to four times the federal poverty line or their medical debt is 5% or more of their annual household income, according to a proposal document.

Eradicating the debt would be for pennies on the dollar, Burnley said. Somerville would be the first municipality in the Bay State to collaborate with RIP Medical Debt, he said. The nonprofit, founded in 2014, has a presence in Toledo, New Orleans and Pittsburgh as well as in several counties across the U.S.

“Abolishing medical debt for Somerville is about freeing up people economically, about healing them physically so they can go out and get more preventative care,” Burnley said. “It’s also about knowing that the government can be a tool to ensure we have human rights in this country.”

More than 100 million Americans are living with medical debt totaling nearly $200 billion, according to national reports. Massachusetts has the lowest average medical debt per resident in the country at $975, according to a study last year by Nice RX, a national medication access company.

RIP Medical Debt President and CEO Allison Sesso in an email to the Herald said she has seen heightened interest in municipalities wanting to partner with her nonprofit, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of the federal ARPA funds. RIP Medical Debt has eliminated $8.5 billion for more than 5.5 million families facing financial hardship since 2014.

The only way to figure out how much medical debt city residents have is by working directly with area hospitals and medical centers, Burnley said.  Somerville residents won’t need to apply or provide documentation that they meet eligibility criteria, he said.

“As a believer in universal programs, I am quite against means-testing and trading bureaucracy around having to provide documentation for things,” he said. “The hospitals often have all of this information already.”

Burnley’s proposal is part of a larger $10 million the city initiative is undertaking to provide support for 501(c)3 nonprofits. The City Council’s public health and public safety committee will hear more about Burnley’s request during a Feb. 13 meeting.

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