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Americans had trouble paying medical bills in 2010

More than one in five Americans were in families with problems paying medical bills in 2010, about the same proportion as in 2007, according to a national study released today by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC).

[Also: Many Americans aren't financially prepared for a serious illness or injury]

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, HSC’s 2010 Health Tracking Household Survey found that while problems paying medical bills have stabilized in recent years, the proportion of Americans in families with medical bill problems remained significantly higher in 2010 compared with 2003 – 20.9 percent versus 15.1 percent.
Many people in families with problems paying medical bills in 2010 experienced severe financial consequences from their medical debt, with about two-thirds reporting problems paying for other necessities and a quarter considering bankruptcy, the study found.
“Given the recession, the sluggish recovery and healthcare costs continuing to increase faster than incomes, it’s a bit surprising that the rate of medical bill problems didn’t increase,” said HSC Senior Researcher Anna Sommers, PhD, coauthor of the study with Peter J. Cunningham, PhD, HSC director of quantitative research.
One reason for the flat numbers could be fewer people seeking medical services due to financial constraints, said Sommers.

“The demand for medical care is affected by how much income we have to spend,” she added. “Household incomes fell during the recession, as millions of people lost their jobs, so demand for medical care slowed.”

Other key findings include: 

  • Marking a significant upward trend, the proportion of people 65 and older with medical bill problems rose from 6.9 percent in 2003 to 10.3 percent in 2010.
  • Uninsured children and working-age adults (aged 0-64) in 2010 were more likely to have medical bill problems (31.5 percent) than their insured counterparts (20.2 percent).
  • Problems paying medical bills can create financial barriers to needed medical care. Among insured people, 9.2 percent of those with medical bill problems reported unmet medical needs because of cost concerns in 2010, compared to 1.4 percent of those with no medical bill problems. Among uninsured people, 27.9 percent of those with medical bill problems reported unmet needs, compared to 8.9 percent of uninsured people with no medical bill problems.

Provisions in the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are likely to reduce – but not eliminate – financial pressures related to paying medical bills for families with incomes below 400 percent of poverty, the study points out.

“The uninsured and low- to middle-income people are hit the hardest by medical bill problems. If wages continue to stagnate and healthcare costs continue to grow faster than real income, the financial burden of healthcare likely will grow more acute,” said Sommers.

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