As economic activity slows amid the coronavirus response in New York and elsewhere, calls for widespread debt relief are becoming more urgent. In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo and State Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday that there would be a temporary freeze on all medical and student debt -- or at least, that’s what some may have gleaned from reading the headlines.
In reality, the policy, which will be re-evaluated after 30 days, only applies to delinquent debt owed to state-run institutions that has been referred to the Attorney General’s office for collection. While the policy is in place, the AG’s office will put off any legal action against debtors in addition to making sure interest and collection fees don’t accrue on the more than 165,000 debt cases the office handles.
"In this time of crisis, my office will not add undue stress or saddle New Yorkers with unnecessary financial burden," James said in a statement.
Debt that has been referred to the AG’s office may originate at schools in the SUNY system as well as medical facilities such as the SUNY Downstate Medical Center University Hospital in Brooklyn. The state also runs five New York State Veterans’ Homes--including one in Jamaica, Queens, and one on Long Island--and many psychiatric facilities.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that SUNY or any other state-run facilities are changing their collection practices during the coronavirus outbreak.
We the Patients New York, a campaign of the Community Service Society of New York to reduce medical debt, praised James on Twitter Tuesday. But the group also called for more widespread action.
“It’s time to extend these protections & call for a 6 month medical debt moratorium! Protect patients during the #COVID2019 crisis!” We the Patients tweeted.
Asked whether hospitals are considering their own forms of debt relief during this unprecedented time, a spokesperson for the Greater New York Hospital Association said Tuesday, “I haven’t heard anything on that front—though I can’t imagine that debt collection is a priority for anyone right now.”
While hospitals undoubtedly have their hands full with efforts to rapidly scale up capacity to prepare for a surge in coronavirus cases, it’s unclear whether hospital billing departments have received any directives related to debt collection as patients’ economic situations become more uncertain.
“For people on a payment plan who are experiencing financial problems as a result of the coronavirus, we are offering to defer or delay payments,” a spokesperson for Northwell Health, the state’s largest health system, said Wednesday. But, he added, “people need to reach out and let us know, not just stop making payments.”
When it comes to future medical bills, the spokesperson said, “we would certainly take into consideration people’s financial predicaments There would need to be discussions with our financial advisors to develop a workable plan.”
If you are still receiving collections notices or legal actions for medical debt during the novel coronavirus response, please let us know! As part of our crowdsourced project #PriceCheckNYC, done in collaboration with WNYC and ClearHealthCosts, we will continue reporting on patients’ experiences trying to access and pay for care related to coronavirus and other medical conditions. You can email us with your health care experiences and tips at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit medical bills to our medical price database below.