Opinion: My Daughters’ Cystic Fibrosis Led to Huge Medical Bills. Here’s How Prop 209 Would Have Helped.

Anna McCallister-Nichols (Photo by Alonso Parra, Lamp Left Media)

By Anna McCallister-Nichols

October 21, 2022

Prop 209 is designed to fix a broken medical debt system and would help anyone who may one day need expensive care.

Too many Arizona families suffer because of emergency medical debt or predatory debt collection practices. I should know—my own family is one of them.

My daughter Jolene was born in 2007 with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects the way your body produces mucus, impacting your lungs and making it hard to breathe. At the time, my husband and I were both working as teachers and had health insurance through the school system, but we quickly realized that it wasn’t enough to cover our daughter’s extensive healthcare needs. Soon, our life was consumed by navigating medical bills and figuring out how to pay for them.

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By the time Jolene was 5 years old and our second daughter Cecilia—who was also diagnosed with cystic fibrosis—was born, we were having our wages garnished and had to foreclose on our house to pay for the bills in collections. There was nothing else we could pull from—no more work we could take on top of caring for our daughters full time.

You might believe that your family is economically secure, but an unexpected diagnosis with a chronic disease or a sudden medical emergency can cost you tens of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket—even if you have insurance–and predatory debt collectors will take everything from you to pay for it.

Almost two-thirds of all bankruptcies are tied to medical debt. For us, there was no other way to get out of the financial hole we were in from our daughters’ care. That’s why I am voting Yes on Prop 209, the Predatory Debt Collection Protection Act. It protects Arizonans by shielding more of our assets and belongings from debt collectors and by limiting the interest rate on medical debt.

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Prop 209 limits outrageous interest rates on medical debt so that families won’t be trapped in an unending cycle. It limits the interest rate on medical debt to no more than 3%. It also protects families from losing their homes by increasing the homestead exemption, already in Arizona law, to $400,000. This means that your primary residence will be protected from debt collectors.

Prop 209 also increases the value of household goods protected from creditors to $15,000, protects a vehicle worth up to $15,000, and protects up to $5,000 held in a bank account. The measure also would annually adjust these amounts for inflation and adds protection against wage garnishment.

The truth is that a chronic disease or sudden medical emergency can cost families tens of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket, even with insurance. Mastering the system can feel like a full-time job, and when you think you have it figured out, something changes, you lose coverage on an essential doctor or prescription, and you fall deeper into debt. Now, when someone can’t pay right away, medical debt collectors can jack up interest rates—up to 10% a year—take away a family’s home or car, and lower patients’ credit scores to make it harder to get out of debt. 

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People shouldn’t have to worry about losing their home if they get sick or are facing large medical bills. Especially because roughly two-thirds of all bankruptcies are tied to debt from healthcare costs, we should make an effort to do better.

The National Consumer Law Center gives Arizona’s laws a letter grade of D for protecting consumers. The Predatory Debt Collection Protection Act/Prop 209 is a commonsense policy designed to fix a broken medical debt system—and helps anyone who may one day need care more expensive than they can afford.

When my eldest daughter Jolene passed away after struggling with cystic fibrosis her whole life, our community organized a GoFundMe to help us with the bills. Now, we’re lucky that we are self-employed and pay for much better insurance through the market so our younger daughter’s treatments don’t cost us so much. But no parent with a chronically ill child should have to go through what we did in order to give them the care they need. 

Vote yes on Prop 209, the Predatory Debt Collection Protection Act, to protect the well-being of families like mine.

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