Sen. Christopher Van Hollen (D-Md.) has co-sponsored a bill that could put a hold on what he calls “draconian measures” implemented by debt collection agencies over medical expenses.

Van Hollen hopes for his COVID-19 Medical Debt Collection Relief Act to be attached to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan introduced by President Joe Biden.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Christopher Murphy (D-Ct.), would provide emergency relief against certain debt collection practices, such as garnishing people’s wages and seizing their bank accounts.

“Right now, people are struggling,” he said. “One in four working Americans adults are having problems paying their medical bills, so it’s hanging over their head.”

Similar to eviction moratoriums, the legislation would prevent these debt collection practices through the end of the state of emergency. Van Hollen said there should be relief for medical debt when there are currently other forms of relief at the federal level.

“Hospitals have received substantial assistance from the federal government to help them bear the costs through this pandemic,” he said. “And so they shouldn’t be turning right around and garnishing the wages of people who have medical debts and can’t afford to pay them right now.”

Medical debt is a common cause of homelessness in Frederick County, said Nick Brown, executive director of the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs.

The Religious Coalition provides assistance to clients who need help paying for prescriptions. Brown said it’s a fairly popular service but has decreased in demand since the passing of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

“It’s still very utilized but it is trending down,” Brown said.

He believes the most efficient way to eliminate medical debt would be to offer universal health care, so everybody has health insurance regardless of their employment status.

“I’m a proponent for sure,” Brown said. “At the coalition, we try to create an even platform for folks to live from.”

Sen. Van Hollen believes the COVID-19 Medical Debt Collection Relief Act, if approved, would lighten the load for many struggling Marylanders, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

He believes costs are keeping some from seeking treatment or testing for the virus due to their outstanding medical costs.

“If you have COVID-19, that’s obviously bad for the person who’s got it,” he said, “It’s bad for the rest of us too, if they’re not going to get checked.”

While it’s still unclear if the pandemic has affected the amount of medical debt Americans are carrying, it has certainly made it more difficult for them to pay off their outstanding debts.

“The pandemic — because of its impact on people’s income — has made it even harder for people the pay their debts right now,” Van Hollen said.

The bill was originally introduced last summer, but died in Congress. After reintroducing the bill, Van Hollen is hopeful it will pass along with the rest of the relief package.

“Everybody needs to do their part in providing relief to workers and families who are in need,” he said. “And people who are struggling to pay their medical bills should not have their bank accounts seized by these debt collectors.”

Follow Erika Riley on Twitter: @ej_riley

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