Tackling the burden of medical debt

Surgical tools are seen
Almost two out of every five American adults are living with some form of debt related to cost of health care.
Leon Neal | Getty Images 2018

Many people are just one medical emergency away from a financial crisis. 

A hundred million Americans live with medical debt, or about 41 percent of adults, according to a survey by Kaiser Family Foundation.

To pay off medical bills, many people have taken on other debt, including credit cards, personal bank loans or loans from family and friends. Medical debt creates stress and prevents people from saving for housing, cars and retirement. It makes people less likely to seek the medical care they need and contributes to bankruptcy.

About two percent of Minnesota households have medical debt in collections compared to a national average of 13 percent. But that rate is double in communities of color.

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Local governments, including St. Paul, are increasingly using public money to pay off residents’ medical debt. And, earlier this year, the administration of Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison proposed changing how medical debt is handled.

The legislation, called the Minnesota Debt Fairness Act, would ban medical providers from denying non-emergency care to patients with large overdue bills, lower the interest rate on medical debt to zero and keep medical debt from showing up on credit reports. And, it would stop the automatic transfer of medical debt to a patient’s spouse.

Listen to a rebroadcast of a conversation from 2022 as MPR News host Angela Davis talks about medical debt with financial and legal experts and the head of the national nonprofit that buys and forgives medical debt for pennies on the dollar.

For more, watch a recent panel discussion about medical debt held in St. Paul and moderated by Marketplace host David Brancaccio.


  • Allison Sesso is the president and CEO of RIP Medical Debt, a national nonprofit organization that uses donations to buy and forgive medical debt. 

  • Kim Miller is a certified financial counselor with LSS Financial Counseling, a service of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. 

  • Laura Orr is a staff attorney at the Minnesota Elder Justice Center. She was previously a senior attorney in elder law at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services based in St. Paul.

Subscribe to the MPR News with Angela Davis podcast on: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or RSS.  

 Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.