By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders released a plan on Saturday to eliminate $81 billion in Americans' existing medical debt, going beyond his Democratic White House rivals and expanding on his signature proposal for a government-run health insurance system.
Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, also said as president he would push to reform bankruptcy laws to provide relief for those with medical debt, and create a public credit registry to replace for-profit credit reporting agencies. Medical debt would be excluded from credit reports.
Studies show medical debt is the top cause of individual bankruptcies in the United States, and Sanders said one-in-six Americans have past-due medical bills that total $81 billion.
"The very concept of medical debt should not exist," Sanders said in a statement. "In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, one illness or disease should not ruin a familyâ€™s financial life and future."
The Sanders campaign said he would pay for the medical debt proposal with a tax on corporations based on their pay for chief executives, although details of that proposal have not been released yet.
Sanders had discussed the broad outline of the plan last month. It builds on his proposal for Medicare for All, a government-run healthcare insurance system based on the existing insurance program for Americans 65 and older, and follows a similar proposal from Sanders to wipe out Americans' student debt.
Sanders, one of 19 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican President Donald Trump for the White House in the November 2020 election, has fallen behind fellow progressive U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren in some polls in the nominating race.
Both trail Democratic front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden in opinion polls.
Warren and some other candidates have signed on to parts or all of Sanders' Medicare for All plan, although many have called for it to be just one option among healthcare insurance choices.
Sanders has put ambitious and costly proposals such as Medicare for All and debt elimination, which would require approval from Congress, at the center of his call for an economic restructuring that would limit corporate influence and level the economic playing field for everyday Americans.
"It is immoral and unconscionable that families across the country are finding themselves nearly broke or bankrupt because of crippling medical debt while the health care industry made more than $100 billion in profits last year," Sanders said.
Sanders will hold a medical debt and bankruptcy town hall on Sunday in Iowa, the state that kicks off the Democratic presidential race in February.
At town hall meetings on the campaign trail, Sanders frequently asks attendees to share stories of their college and medical debts. In Nevada recently, a Navy veteran told Sanders he was contemplating suicide because he owed more than $130,000.
(Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)