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Orange County set to become first Florida county using COVID-19 cash to clear medical debt

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Orange County is on track to become the first county in the state to clear medical debt with leftover COVID-19 cash.

The county is setting aside $4.5 million to wipe out the medical debt of upwards of 100,000 Orange County residents.

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With only $23 million in leftover American Rescue Plan Act funding available, commissioners had to balance existing priorities including funding mental health and homelessness with the medical debt relief proposal.

Central Florida Jobs with Justice initially asked the board to consider their proposal which would have cleared medical debt for about 300,000 residents using $8.7 million in ARPA funding.

Since commissioners only allocated $4.5 million to clear medical debt, the county will need to work out details about the program including narrowing in on who will qualify.

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Half-a-dozen Orange County residents showed up at a county commission meeting Tuesday asking commissioners to clear their medical debt.

Orange County resident and psychology student Ashe Heart told commissioners a hospitalization for an asthma attack led to mounting medical bills.

She owes $2,000 in medical debt, and it has prevented her from taking out a college loan. It has also limited her ability to seek other medical treatment.

“I have to either choose to get food or choose to get medical help. And I choose food,” said Heart.

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Emergency Room Clinical Pharmacist Jenna Ferreira also advocated for the medical debt relief proposal. She told commissioners that hundreds of patients she’s cared for have been adversely impacted by medical debt.

“If they’re feeling kind of icky, or a little bit of chest pain, they’ll neglect going to the ED over the fear of the charge associated with it,” said Ferreira “Medical debt doesn’t just exist in a vacuum follows you throughout your financial history.”

The mayor said the current plan for those leftover ARPA funds is a compromise that addresses housing needs, public safety, and more.

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Commissioners committed to using ARPA money to fund a number of other projects including $5 million for affordable housing, $4.3 million for mental health and homeless initiatives, $2.5 million to provide job assistance to residents, $1 million to address food insecurity through Second Harvest, and $5.7 million to build a new fire station.

While Orange County will be the first in the state to clear medical debt, other communities including Cooke County, Illinois and New Orleans, Louisiana have already used the funds to clear medical debt.

The county said they are talking with those neighboring communities to figure out the best way forward.

The county will need to iron out details including who will qualify for the program, will need to contract with a provider to oversee the medical debt program, and spend all their leftover covid cash by the end of 2026.

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