Occupy Wall Street demonstrators protest against rising national student debt in New York, April 25, 2012. (Reuters/Andrew Burton)
Strike Debt, one of the offshoot groups of Occupy Wall Street, has planned a week of action March 16–23 in response to what it calls a “healthcare emergency.” A majority of personal bankruptcies in the United States are linked to medical bills, with 75 percent of people declaring bankruptcy even though they have health insurance.
“These debts are literally killing patients, students, providers and communities,” Strike Debt states at its website. “They deepen the already entrenched inequalities that divide races, classes and genders. Our healthcare system doesn’t make us well; it prolongs our illnesses in the name of profit.”
While it remains unclear what the group specifically has planned—the page suggests supporters “stay tuned for updates”—Strike Debt does promise to make a “big announcement in March,” and provides a list of activism suggestions for supporters, including protesting closed community hospitals, private insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and/or engaging in creative direct action.
San Francisco General Hospital recently provided just one example of the ripple effect of medical debt when it declared a $40.8 million budget shortfall in the end of February partially as a result of unpaid medical bills and ballooning employee costs:
General Hospital serves 1,500 patients daily and is the only trauma center between The City and Palo Alto. It also serves many low-income and elderly patients who rely on Medi-Cal and Medicare.
In the past, hospitals charged Medi-Cal and Medicare a fee for services rendered to their beneficiaries. Reliance on a new “managed care” model has resulted in lower charges, but also has brought in $8.2 million less than budgeted.
And budget figures show that “bad debt,” or situations where a patient simply cannot pay for the care he or she received, is skyrocketing. The hospital allotted some $58 million for bad debt, but it has been stuck with nearly $91 million in unpaid medical bills.
“We’re funding wards for which we’re not being given money to fund and keep open,” said Dr. Edward Chow of the Health Commission.
Budget cuts significantly hurt the hospital after the health department anticipated receiving up to $16.2 million for mental health care costs, but the money now seems unlikely to be delivered.