Bernie Sanders Introduces Plan to Cancel $81 Billion in Medical Debt

And restore credit scores damaged by unpaid medical bills.

Senator Bernie Sanders campaigning at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Thursday. Preston Ehrler/SOPA Images via ZUMA

Bernie Sanders not only wants to eliminate future medical debt with his plan for Medicare-for-All, he also wants to wipe the slate clean for Americans who already have debt from unpaid medical bills. On Saturday, the Democratic candidate announced an ambitious plan to eliminate $81 billion medical debt for Americans, reform bankruptcy laws, and even put an end to credit score agencies.

“The very concept of medical debt should not exist,” Sanders said in a statement. “In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, one illness or disease should not ruin a family’s financial life and future.”

Medical debt is a significant economic burden on millions of Americans —and though there is an academic debate over exactly how many bankruptcies are directly attributable to it, health care expenses are the largest single causes of bankruptcies nationwide. According to a 2014 report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, half of all debt reported to credit agencies is medical debt, and one out of every five credit reports contains unpaid medical debt. It’s also a serious—though hard to measure—hazard to people’s health. A 2018 study from West Health and Gallup found that a quarter of all Americans had skipped a medical treatment due to cost.

Under Sanders’ plan, the government would negotiate and pay off $81 billion in unpaid medical bills that have been sold to collection agencies and are currently harming people’s credit reports. His plan would also limit the notorious tactics debt collectors engage in when they track people down and hound them to collect on the debts they have purchased. If implemented, the plan might also come well under its $81 billion price tag as debt sold to debt collectors is worth only a fraction of the original bill. 

In addition, Sanders’ plan would reform the 2005 bankruptcy law (the one Elizabeth Warren vigorously opposed and Joe Biden supported) so that it will be easier to forgive medical debt.

Finally, the proposal would stop medical debt from impacting people’s credit scores. Sanders would create a federal credit registry to rival and ultimately replace credit agencies like Equifax, and medical debt would not be factored into anyone’s score. “Credit scores also systematically perpetuate gaps in wealth and inequality between white and minority consumers,” the plan states. “We will establish a public registry that will end racial biases in credit scores and ensure those with medical debt are not penalized for the ‘crime’ of getting sick.”

On Twitter Saturday, Sanders’ campaign shared the experiences of some Americans weighed down by medical bills. 

THE BIG QUESTION...

as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot. That's what Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein tackles in her annual December column—"Billionaires Are Not the Answer"—about the state of journalism and our plans for the year ahead.

We can't afford to let independent reporting depend on the goodwill of the superrich: Please help Mother Jones build an alternative to oligarchy that is funded by and answerable to its readers. Please join us with a tax-deductible, year-end donation so we can keep going after the big stories without fear, favor, or false equivalency.

THE BIG QUESTION...

as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot.

Please read our annual column about the state of journalism and Mother Jones' plans for the year ahead, and help us build an alternative to oligarchy by supporting our people-powered journalism with a year-end gift today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.