Medical debt, “a persistent problem”, reaches $195 million in the United States

Nearly 1 in 10 adults owe at least $250 for health care costs.

Medical debt ‘remains a persistent problem’, with nearly 23 million Americans owing an estimated $195 billion for health care, according to a new study.

Nearly one in 10 adults has medical debt of at least $250 as of December 2019, according to “The Burden of Medical Debt in the United States,” published by the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).

Over 90% of the US population has some form of health insurance. But medical debt occurs in all demographic groups, with a higher risk for people with disabilities, those in poorer health, those with lower incomes, black Americans, and people living in Southern or non-expanding states. Medicaid.

“Medical debt remains a persistent problem even among those covered by insurance,” said the report by researchers Matthew Rae, Gary Claxton, Krutika Amin, Emma Wager, Jared Ortaliza and Cynthia Cox.

Among the 23 million highly indebted people:

  • Almost half, 11 million people, owed more than $2,000.
  • 3 million, or 13%, owed $5,001 to $10,000.
  • 3 million, or 13%, owed $10,000 or more.

Most Americans have private health insurance that typically requires payment of deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments for services and prescriptions.

“A serious injury or illness can cost thousands of dollars out of pocket to meet these deductibles and other cost-sharing requirements,” the study states. “For people with a chronic condition, even smaller co-payments and other cost-sharing expenses can add up to unaffordable amounts. Insured patients may also incur medical debt for care not covered by insurance, including for denied claims and out-of-network care.

For some people, “even a medical bill of a few hundred dollars can present major problems” because people don’t have enough money to meet deductibles or out-of-pocket maximums.

The conclusions were based on data from the Income and Program Participation Survey by the United States Census Bureau.

It was unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession affected medical debt.

At the start of the pandemic, people lost their jobs and incomes, which could make it more difficult to access health care. People also delayed or went without health care, so fewer were exposed to expensive care, the study found.

The researchers acknowledged that the total amount of medical debt is difficult to estimate accurately and that a small proportion of adults account for a large share of the total.

The survey results exceeded findings by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which estimated that Americans’ credit reports showed $88 billion in medical debt. This figure is likely an underestimate because not all medical debt is visible to reporting companies and not all people have credit reports.


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John A. Bogar