Prescription for Debt: Medical debt, bankruptcy a wide-spread issue for Ohioans

TOLEDO (WTVG) - Stephanie Sams is a successful single mother of a 12-year-old son, but years ago she suffered one medical setback after another.

"It seemed like every time I'd get my head above water, something else would happen," says Sams, who, despite being a healthy active person suffered pneumonia, a broken pelvis, and had to have a c-section and kidney surgeries. Before she knew it, she was buried in medical bills.

Stephanie says she tried everything to get it under control. "Trying to consolidate credit, making minimum payments," she tells 13abc. "Unfortunately, I was just trying to rebuild my life at the time so I wasn't making a whole lot of money toward it."

Ultimately, she had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.

Stephanie is far from alone. Despite the fact that most people have some sort of health coverage, insurance may not protect you from financial difficulties should an expensive medical emergency arise. Huge deductibles and high premiums, coupled with growing medical costs, are bankrupting people at a growing rate. According to a recent study from Bank Rate, only 40% of Americans have enough money saved to cover a $1,000 emergency expense, much less one that costs several thousand dollars.

According to RIPMedicalDebt.org, 19% of the state's population has some form of medical debt totaling nearly $2 billion statewide.

"67% of the time, medical bills are the driver of the need to file a bankruptcy case," says attorney Mike Dansak. "It's something that most Americans can't plan for they can't absorb that unexpected hit to their regular budget."

Many people end up putting unexpected medical expenses on their credit cards.

"They out the bill on the credit card thinking 'ok, I can pay that later but still get the treatment,'" says bankruptcy attorney Patti Baumgartner-Novak. "Then the credit cards themselves start to add up and they can't afford to pay it."

Baumgartner-Novak says for chronically ill patients it can become a tragic cycle that she tries to help them avoid. "A lot of times, they have the same problems because they still have the same insurance," she says. "They still have the same copays."

For Stephanie, bankruptcy was the fresh start she needed to be able to recover financially, but she feels for other people who are going through it.

"It's something that people don't really have control over," she says. "It more or less ruins their whole life."