OpEd: Public Money Should Be Used for Public Good in New York’s Hospital System

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OpEd: Public Money Should Be Used for Public Good in New York’s Hospital System

Health care is a human right. Without access to it, people suffer and people die preventable deaths. New York State has made strides forward in expanding access to care, but until we end medical debt and pass coverage for all, too many of us, in Long Island and across the state, will continue to fall through the cracks.

One way that New York is trying to close the gap is with the hospital financial assistance program for low- and moderate income people. Every year, our state government distributes over a billion dollars to hospitals through the Indigent Care Pool (ICP). Hospitals are required to provide discounted prices to people who earn up to 300% of the federal poverty level, always when they’re uninsured and sometimes even when they’re insured.

The problem is that many hospitals who are receiving these funds from the state are not distributing them to patients who need help paying for care. It’s outrageous that hospitals would keep public money, given to them specifically for public financial assistance. But that’s exactly what’s happening. Unless a patient already knows about the program and applies for financial assistance, many hospitals fail to offer it to them. And when patients can’t pay, hospitals are pursuing collections actions against them–even the middle and low-income people who actually qualify for financial assistance.

The results are devastating. In Nassau and Suffolk counties, over 11,500 patients were sued for medical bills from 2015-2020. Statewide, 15 percent of New Yorkers used up all or most of their savings on medical bills, and 13 percent were left unable to pay for basic necessities like food, heat, or housing, according to a 2019 poll. There are drastic racial disparities in these aggressive collection practices. Across the state, zip codes that are majority people of color have a higher percentage of people with medical debt on their credit reports, compared to majority-white zip codes.

Northwell has historically been one of the most aggressive hospital systems against patients who cannot afford care. Yet Northwell’s CEO, Michael Dowling, receives an executive compensation of about $4 million per year. This type of profit-over-people attitude cannot stand.  Public money given to hospitals for financial assistance must go to the people for whom it was actually intended to help.

That’s why Long Island Progressive Coalition and Citizen Action are calling on legislators to pass the Ounce of Prevention Act, which will force hospitals to make financial assistance funding accessible to patients and raise the threshold for who qualifies. This legislation would create a standard application for patients to be used across the board, rather than having different applications at different hospitals–a priority that Governor Hochul echoed in her State of the State address.

The legislation would also extend financial assistance to people earning up to 600% of the federal poverty level, throwing a lifeline to even more families who are drowning in medical debt while also dealing with the skyrocketing costs of housing and food.

This bill would prevent the devastation being caused by the high cost of hospital care, and that is an important step towards making sure every New Yorker can access health care without the fear of crushing medical bills. However, there is still a loophole that must be closed before we can proudly say that our state ensures healthcare for all.

When New York State expanded health access in 2019, they left out one group: immigrants without documentation. Every person, regardless of their immigration status, has inherent dignity. When our immigrant neighbors are sick or injured, we have the same duty to ensure they can access care that we have to every other New Yorker. That’s why the Long Island Progressive Coalition and Citizen Action are calling on New York legislators to pass the Coverage for All act, and close this cruel and inhumane loophole for good.

Healthcare is a human right and we want a world that reflects that. It’s time to shrink the racial divide in health care, expand access, and stop corporations from getting rich on the backs of patients while taking public money intended to help pay for care. We won’t stop organizing until everyone has access to the care they need, and the state-backed financial assistance to pay for it.

Josie Manucha is Long Island Progressive Coalition’s Base Building Organizer