Cleveland City Council Wants to Use $1.9 Million in ARPA Money to Eliminate $190 Million in Medical Debt for Residents

"That debt is disproportionately held in low-income communities and communities of color," said Charles Slife

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City Council President Blaine Griffin and Mayor Justin Bibb - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
City Council President Blaine Griffin and Mayor Justin Bibb

Legislation introduced Monday evening at Cleveland City Council could eliminate more than $190 million in medical debt for up to 50,000 Clevelanders if passed. The $1.9 million required to invest in the legislation would come from the American Rescue Plan Act, the major COVID-19 stimulus package passed in 2019.

"This hits a lot of our equity goals, our declaration of racism as a public health crisis, because that debt is disproportionately held in low-income communities and communities of color," said councilmember Charles Slife at the meeting. "Having your debt forgiven is a way that you can get that weight off your shoulders and start thinking about how you want to invest in your house, how you want to pay for your education, how you want to do all the things that you feel like you can't because you're being just weighted down by this debt."

 The ordinance is co-sponsored by council president Blaine Griffin of Ward 6 and members Richard Starr of Ward 5, Kevin Conwell of Ward 9, Rebecca Maurer of Ward 12, Kris Harsh of Ward 13 and Charles Slife of Ward 17.

At the council meeting Griffin estimated that 13 or 14 of the 17 councilmembers had expressed support for the ordinance.

To craft the legislation, Harsh and Slife met with RIP Medical Debt, a national nonprofit that buys medical debt in bundles at a fraction of the cost. Every $1 of this bundled debt eliminates an estimated $100 in medical debt. Through donations the organization says it’s relieved more than $8.5 billion in medical debt, helping more than 5.5 million individuals and families.

The proposed ordinance would follow this model. Toledo will be doing something similar.

“The influx of ARPA funding allows us to use once-in-a-lifetime resources to make real change for Clevelanders," Griffin said in a statement. "We know this ordinance if passed, will alleviate some burden from the shoulder of tens of thousands of Clevelanders.”

Medical debt is cited as the primary cause of two in three bankruptcies, according to RIP Medical Debt. If passed, this legislation would relieve debt for many Clevelanders but not stop the problem.

"This is not a solution to the real issue, which is the cost of healthcare in this country, but this is certainly a way that we can use this one-time influx of funds to help our residents in a way that is quick and impactful," said Slife.

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