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Study: More than 57 Million Americans Had Medical Debt in 2007

By Shweta Jha, CQ Staff

September 24, 2008 -- More than 57 million Americans experienced problems paying their medical bills in 2007, and 42.5 million of them had insurance coverage, according to a study released Wednesday by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC).

The number of Americans in families who had difficulties paying medical bills increased to 19.4 percent last year, higher than the 15.1 percent of people who faced the same difficulty in 2003, the study found. The rate of problems with medical bills remained stable for elderly Americans, but non-elderly people who were insured and uninsured also faced such problems in 2007, according to the study, which was funded by The Commonwealth Fund.

"Increases in problems paying medical bills are affecting not only those who have always struggled with medical costs—low-income and uninsured people—but also an increasing number of insured middle-income families," study author Peter J. Cunningham, an HSC senior fellow, said in a news release. The national survey contains information on 18,000 people and had a 43 percent response rate.

The study found that approximately 2.2 million people with medical bill problems came from families that filed for bankruptcy as a result of their medical bills. A larger group said they experienced other financial consequences, such as problems paying for food and housing.

Sixty percent of people said family members' illnesses caused problems with medical bills, while 28.6 percent of bill problems were because of an accident or injury. About 8 percent of respondents said their medical bill problems were caused by the birth of a child, according to the study.

It found that uninsured non-elderly individuals were more likely to be in families with medical bill problems (34.4 percent) compared with people who were insured and non-elderly (18.3 percent). Medical bills problems were reported by 28.4 percent of enrollees in Medicaid or other state coverage programs.

The amount of medical debt that people carried varied, the study found. Approximately one-fourth of respondents said they had less than $800 in debt while another one-fourth said they had debt of about $5,000 or more. About 10 percent carried a debt of $12,000 or more, it found.

The study found that people with medical debt in 2003 and in 2007 had to make hard compromises in terms of paying for other necessities. Sixty-two percent said they were contacted by a collection agency, and more than half said they had to borrow money to pay medical bills, according to the study.

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