Dennis Thomas
Dennis Thomas, of Rocky Hill, tells governor Gov. Ned Lamont and other state officials about his struggles dealing with medical debt during a roundtable discussion at Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford Thursday. Credit: Mike Savino / CTNewsJunkie

At the request of his mother, Dennis Thomas went to a doctor just to make sure everything was fine.

He was shocked when doctors sent him straight to the hospital for a heart transplant.

“Three months before I had a heart transplant, I had a full physical,” he said. “There was no case of anything.”

Now 13 years later, that transplant continues to wreak havoc for Thomas, who estimates his medical debt is “over about $10,000 to $20,000.”

Gov. Ned Lamont wants funding in the budget to help people like Thomas by canceling their medical debt. Connecticut would be the first state in the country to do that.

His budget proposal called for using $20 million in pandemic relief in a plan that, according to his office, could eliminate $1 billion in medical debt.

“Medical debt hovers like a cloud over families,” Lamont said during a roundtable discussion at Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford Thursday.

But lawmakers have not included the funding in any of their budgets.

“For me, finding $20 million in a $20-billion budget that will cancel $1 billion of medical debt, is a good math equation for us,” said Comptroller Sean Scanlon, whose office’s tasks include administering insurance benefits for state employees.

None of the four caucuses immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday. But Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, who was part of the roundtable, supports the plan.

“I think it’s important for us to tackle the cost of healthcare in a big way, and certainly this is part of that,” he said.

If approved, Connecticut would partner with a nonprofit organization that would contact hospitals and buy debt on behalf of qualified patients.

Oftentimes, the hospitals are willing to sell the debt for pennies on the dollar.

Lamont Carter
Gov. Ned Lamont listens to Trinity Health of New England President and CEO Montez Carter talk about canceling medical debt during a roundtable discussion at Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford Thursday. Credit: Mike Savino / CTNewsJunkie

Trinity Health of New England, the healthcare network that includes Saint Francis has been working with the nonprofit RIP Medical Debt. Officials say the nonprofit has bought up $32 million in medical debt, with some patients dealing with the financial burden for six years before they get help. 

According to the Office of Health Strategy, unpaid medical debt in Connecticut rose by 13% to $456.1 million in fiscal year 2021. Trinity Health of New England President and CEO Montez Carter says even people who have insurance are increasingly at risk.

Many companies are scaling back on the coverage they offer to employees as a way to keep costs down.

“It’s created this new phenomenon of underinsured insured patients who come to us,” he said during the roundtable.

The Connecticut Hospital Association said medical debt is a problem.

“The type of program proposed by the Governor has worked in other parts of the country to provide immediate medical debt relief and we think it is something Connecticut should explore as well,” the organization said in a statement. “We also need to pursue long term solutions, including insurance designs that better protect families against medical debt.”

And as medical debt piles up, households are forced into difficult decisions. An American Journal for Public Health study last year found two-thirds of bankruptcies were tied to medical issues.

“Do you keep this medication or do you keep the lights on?” asked Thomas, of Rocky Hill. Thomas hasn’t been able to work full-time since his transplant 13 years ago.

He also had colon cancer three years ago. Thomas said he has to take $10,000 worth of medication each month.

“We’re not even talking about going to the doctor, blood work, visit — routine testing for the year to make sure everything’s going OK,” he said.

Lamont is optimistic lawmakers will agree to include the money in a final budget. He also acknowledged the plan is a bandaid, and a real solution also needs to bring down the cost of healthcare.

He said his office is trying to work with hospitals and insurance companies to bring costs down. Other solutions include partnering with other states to make bulk purchases of prescription medications and educating people on how to save costs.

Ultimately, Lamont thinks the best solution is some form of universal healthcare, though.

“I want the feds to take the lead on this,” he said. “No one can be left behind.”

Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said his party’s budget proposal will provide some relief to Connecticut families when it comes to health insurance premiums.

“We will have a conversation on any concept to make Connecticut more affordable and improve health outcomes,” Kelly said in a statement. “For example, the Senate Republicans’ $1.5 Billion Back Budget funds a reinsurance program which can reduce premiums by 30%. That’s an annual saving to the average family of four of $7,000, or almost $600 a month. That’s real money for real people.”