Noam Levey reports for Kaiser Health News that medical debt plagues 100 million Americans. Levey’s reporting is based in part on a Kaiser Family Foundation poll revealing that 41 percent of adults in the US have medical debt. The extent of this debt–which is likely over $200 billion total–has gone unrecognized because a lot of it is hidden in the form of credit card debt, loans from family members, and payment plans to physicians and hospitals.
With income relatively flat relative to soaring costs, Americans are struggling more and more to save. Half of Americans do not have $500 in the bank, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. About a third of people owe their providers less than $1,000 and about a half owe less than $2,500. But, one in four adults owe their health care providers more than$5,000. It is extremely likely that many of them will be in debt for the rest of their lives.
Medical debt is the largest debt Americans bear–58 percent of all debt recorded in the US. People pay that debt in different ways. Fifty million adults pay their medical debt through payment plans with their health care providers. Ten percent of adults owe medical debt to a family member or friend. About 18 percent of adults pay their medical debt through their credit cards.
Levey says that medical debt keeps families from securing other basic necessities. Poll data finds that more than six in ten people with medical debt cut back on food and clothing. Nearly half spend all their savings to pay off their debt. About one in six are pushed into bankruptcy.
An independent analysis found that people with complex and chronic conditions bear a heavy proportion of medical debt. People with heart disease, stroke and cancer can have three or four times the amount of debt than others in better health.
Likely thanks to Medicare, people over 65 are half as likely to experience medical debt as people under 30. The Affordable Care Act relies on corporate health insurers to cover people’s care and allows these corporate insurers to profit wildly in the process. As a result, people with coverage through their state health insurance exchanges can experience severe medical debt. Deductibles alone can be unaffordable.
To collect on debt, hospitals engage collection agencies, which in turn go after patients with abandon. To escape debt, specialists are saying that cancer patients are forgoing treatment. Levey profiles one person who is harassed about a bill that she doesn’t owe over and over and over again. When will this insanity end?