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Lawmakers demand change as civilians are hit with

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Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are calling on the Department of Defense to address its lack of financial relief provided for citizens who receive emergency treatment at U.S. military facilities. The push comes following a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office which found that the Defense Department rarely waives or reduces medical bills issued to citizens in these circumstances despite its ability to do so. 

“There is a benefit to the military by them being able to treat these patients,” Castro said. “So what the military should do is work with private insurers, but also work with patients to reduce these bills and to get rid of exorbitant or extraordinary costs that patients are being billed with.”

In 2020, Castro initiated legislation, which became law, that allows military officials to waive or reduce medical bills for civilians who received “emergency medical treatment” and are unable to pay. But the nonpartisan government report found that the military doesn’t exercise this power often. 

According to the Government Accountability Office, only 32 civilian medical debt cases out of 27,000 reviewed over a five-year period were reduced. 

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“While DOD has options to provide financial relief…it does not consistently inform patients about them,” the report stated.

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Some citizens know the impacts of hefty medical bills issued by military hospitals after receiving emergency care all too well. 

Last year, “CBS Mornings” consumer investigative national correspondent Anna Werner spoke to Alexis Hernandez — a Puerto Rican resident who was studying medicine in Mexico when a gas explosion at his apartment left him with life-threatening injuries. 

After receiving specialized treatment at a burn center located at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Hernandez was billed $1.7 million from the government. He has since had his medical debt waived, but at one point described the weight of his debt as making him feel “completely hopeless.” Hernandez is now finally attending medical school again and has received 29 surgeries in total. 

The Department of Defense did not comment on the GAO report, but the Department of Treasury says it takes the recommendations seriously and is working with the Defense Department to ensure its debt collection referrals are accurate. 

“The Fiscal Service is committed to working with citizens who owe a debt to ensure they are treated fairly, receive proper notices, are provided opportunities to dispute debts, and that any repayment plan is consistent with their financial means,” a spokesperson from the Department of Treasury said. 

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