Bernie Sanders teases plan to eliminate billions in medical debt

Sen. Bernie Sanders announced late Friday that he plans to eliminate billions in medical debt, hinting at a proposal the 2020 presidential Democratic candidate’s campaign has yet to release in full.

The plan, which the Sanders campaign says would cancel $81 billion in existing past-due medical debt and make changes to the 2005 bankruptcy bill, is not expected to be released in its entirety for another month. The proposal — which is still in the works, separate from the senator’s “Medicare for All” plan and meant to address debt under the current system — does not explicitly state how Sanders will eliminate medical debt, but says, “under this plan, the federal government will negotiate and pay off past-due medical bills in collection that have been reported to credit agencies.”

Sanders’ announcement came during a health care-focused town hall in Florence, South Carolina, in response to a question from an audience member on how he would address the issue. The campaign was still developing details of the plan when Sanders hinted at its release Friday night, but released an outline Saturday after the Vermont senator was asked about the issue directly.

A woman at the town hall stood up and asked, “Is there anything in your plan that would actually work for people that are drowning right now for their medical debt?”

“We’re looking at that right now,” Sanders responded. “In another piece of legislation that we’re going to be offering we will eliminate medical debt in this country. I mean, just stop and think for a second. Why should people be placed in financial duress? For what crime did you commit? You got a serious illness? That is not what this country should be about.”

Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir told CNN on Friday that “Sen. Sanders had previously asked us to pull together a plan to finally end the crisis of medical debt, and when asked directly about it tonight he was honest and candid in previewing his thinking on this important matter.”

The one-page overview cites medical debt as “the leading cause of consumer bankruptcy,” and states: “We are sick and tired of seeing 530,000 Americans declare bankruptcy each year because they cannot pay off the outrageous cost of a medical emergency or a hospital stay.”

“In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, 42 percent of Americans should not be losing their entire life savings two years after being diagnosed with cancer,” the outline continues.

Those figures, which have also been used by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, have been challenged and could not immediately be validated by CNN.

The outline explains that the full plan will address the components of the 2005 bankruptcy bill that “made it much more difficult to discharge medical debt” and “trapped families with medical debt in long-term poverty.” It also promises to “make sure that no one’s credit score is negatively impacted by unpaid medical bills.”

Later Friday, Sanders elaborated on his thinking while speaking with reporters at a nearby street party following the town hall.

“In the midst of a dysfunctional health care system, what we have got to do is say that you cannot go bankrupt. You cannot end up in financial distress, because you’re terribly sick. That’s cruel, and that is something we’ve got to end,” Sanders said.

This story has been updated.