Barry Herman, Guest Blogger

As of 2:00 pm on Friday, November 16, 2012, individual Americans have contributed over $290,000 to an Occupy project called “Strike Debt” that will cancel $5.8 million of defaulted debt owed by US residents to hospitals and doctors in this country, and the amount donated is still growing.

This sentence must make little sense to readers outside the United States, so let me explain.

First, medical debt: in this country, many people have medical insurance through their employers or buy it individually. If they are over 65, they have it through a federal government program called Medicare, or if they are poor through a joint federal and state program called Medicaid. Some insurance, however, covers only part of the cost of medical care or it excludes some illnesses (for example, if you have a “pre-existing” condition when you start the insurance, it may not be covered), and some 44 million Americans have no insurance at all. The situation will be improved—if only partly— after the start of “Obamacare,” the medical insurance reform that the Obama Administration managed to get through the US Congress in 2010 (formally, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). In the meantime, millions of Americans owe large amounts of money to hospitals and doctors. Anyone coming to a hospital in the United States has to be treated, whether they have insurance or not, but hospitals have a rather mixed record when it comes to getting paid by those who are not insured. Medical bills are a main reason for personal bankruptcy in this country.

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