AUSTIN, Texas — Emiliana Chavez speaks very little English but you don't need a translator to understand how medical debt has impacted the life of this mother of five from Austin, Texas.
"I was scared," Chavez said in a recent interview.
Chavez's 14-year-old daughter, Natalia, recently ended up in the emergency room with chest pain. Like 30 million other Americans, Chavez does not have health insurance. She ended up with a $1,500 bill she couldn’t afford.
But that's where Scott Spivey-Provencio comes in.
Spivey-Provencio is a third-year medical student. When he's not in school he's on the ground in community clinics across Austin doing outreach work for a nonprofit called Dollar For. He works with social workers, doctors, and nurses to train them about the program which is helping Americans like Chavez get rid of their medical debt.
"Trying to get them connected to resources is the best way to keep them from getting into worse debt," Spivey-Provencio said.
An estimated 16 million Americans are drowning in under $195 billion in medical debt they can't afford.
"Medical debt is an unavoidable debt people don't choose to go into it," said Jared Walker, who founded Dollar For and is also Spivey-Provencio's boss.
Walker founded Dollar For as a way to help people with medical debt by enforcing hospital charity policies. Americans currently owe more than $195 billion in medical debt.
"It doesn't take a whole lot to tip the scales for people," he added.
Never heard of charity care? The idea is pretty simple. Six out of 10 hospitals in the U.S. are nonprofits. In order to keep that status with the IRS, they have to provide charity care and financial assistance whenever possible. That means if you fall within a certain income range, hospitals have to waive your medical bills.
"Enforcing charity care is the lowest-hanging fruit to help hospitals right now," Walker added.
To help people struggling with medical debt, Walker and his team Dollar For have created a website. It's essentially a database of every hospital in the U.S. and its financial assistance policies. All someone has to do is input their household size, income, and debt amount. The website will then show someone what kind of assistance they qualify for and be linked with a specialist to help navigate the process.
"The problem is nobody knows about it. Hospitals don't do a great job of telling people about it. We have millions of people declaring bankruptcy or paying bills they don't have to pay," Walker said.
Medical debt experts say to consider these tips to avoid medical debt:
- Sign up for public insurance if you qualify
- Check whether specifics for upcoming procedures are covered
- Always get an itemized bill to review charges
- Check providers are in-network
- Negotiate directly with your hospital
- Never put medical debt on your credit card