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Study: 20% In U.S. Struggle With Medical Bills

December 27, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Practice Management
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The families of one in five Americans had trouble paying medical bills in 2010, according to new research released this month. The good news: that percentage didn’t significantly increase between 2007 and 2010.

The numbers come from a report by the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan organization founded in 1995 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Although the percentage of Americans struggling with medical bills barely budged from 2007 to 2010, rising from 19.4 percent only to 20.9 percent despite the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, it’s still hardly reassuring that health care expenses caused big problems for one fifth of U.S. families. And the percentages are significantly up from 2003 (15.1 percent).

Even the good news wasn’t all that good. Yes, the percentage of those reporting problems steadied from 2007 to 2010, but the authors of the report, Anna Sommers and Peter J. Cunningham, speculated:

The steady rate of medical bill problems may be a byproduct of decreased use of medical care—both by people who lost jobs and health insurance during the recession and others who cut back on medical care in the face of uncertain economic times.

People 65 or older fared best, at least in part because of Medicare. Only 10.3 percent reported problems with medical bills in 2010 (compared with 7.9 percent in 2007 and 6.9 percent in 2003). But of Americans under 65, even those with health insurance had problems keeping up: 20.2 percent reported difficulty with medical bills, compared with 18.3 percent in 2007 and 14.3 percent in 2003.

Among the uninsured, a distressing 31.5 percent reported problems with medical bills. That was up from 27.2 percent in 2003 but down from 34.4 percent in 2007. Why the decrease? “Between 2007 and 2010, uninsured nonelderly people cut back on their use of health care, primarily by visiting office-based physicians less often,” the report said. It also said that many of those who became uninsured between 2007 and 2010 were healthier than those who were already uninsured.

Those who had trouble paying medical bills in 2010 faced serious consequences. The report said that because of the difficulties, 65.8 percent had trouble paying for other necessities, 64.5 percent had been contacted by a collection agency, 50.2 percent had borrowed money, and 24.8 had considered filing for bankruptcy (and of those, 20.2 percent actually filed).

The report concludes bleakly: “If wages continue to stagnate and health care costs continue to grow faster than real income, the financial burden of health care likely will grow more acute.”

Related seminar: The Business of Radiology

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