DENVER — Kayce Atencio used to be haunted by a thought while working at a homeless shelter in downtown Denver. “It could have been me,” said Atencio, 30, who lives in a small apartment with his son and daughter not far from the shelter.
It almost was. Atencio and his children for years slept on friends’ couches or stayed with family, unable to rent an apartment because of poor credit. He said that medical debt was a major factor.
Atencio, then 19, suffered a fatal heart attack due to a congenital condition that was not diagnosed. The debts he incurred from his care ruined his credit rating. “It always felt like I just couldn’t get a leg up,” he said, recalling a life of dead-end jobs and high-interest loans as he tried to stay ahead of debt collectors. By 25, he’d declared bankruptcy.
Medical debt is forcing Americans across the country to make difficult sacrifices. Many people cut back their spending on food or take on more work. Others drain their retirement savings. The health care system threatens the very existence of millions, like Atencio.
That’s proven particularly devastating in communities like Denver, where skyrocketing prices have put housing out of reach for many residents and fueled a crisis that’s left thousands homeless and…