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Study: Steady Rate of Medical Bill Difficulties May Be Caused By Delaying Care

By Nellie Bristol, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

December 23, 2011 – While the proportion of people reporting problems paying their medical bills stayed relatively stable between 2007 and 2010, there also could be fewer people seeking care, the Center for Studying Health System Change concluded in a study released last week.

Overall, 20.9 percent of people reported difficulty paying medical bills in 2010, compared to 19.4 percent in 2007. Both rates are markedly higher than the 2003 rate of 15.1 percent.

"Given the severe 2007-2009 recession, the sluggish economic recovery and health care costs continuing to increase faster than incomes, it is somewhat surprising that the rate of medical bill problems did not increase between 2007 and 2010," wrote researchers Anna Sommers and Peter J. Cunningham. "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."

Among the uninsured, those reporting medical bill problems are substantially more likely to have unmet medical needs.

The study notes that the number of uninsured increased from 42.8 million in 2007 to 51.7 million in 2010. Although it is the group consistently showing the largest number of people with medical bill issues, the percentage of uninsured people under age 65 reporting problems fell to 31.5 percent in 2010 from 34.4 percent in 2007.

Many families struggling with medical bills had "severe financial consequences from their medical debt," the report says, with about two-thirds saying they had trouble paying for other necessities and a quarter considering bankruptcy. About one-fifth of those considering bankruptcy actually filed for it, the report noted. Among the financial consequences of medical bill problems are putting off a major purchase, being contacted by a collection agency and taking money out of savings.

In other findings, the report identified a "significant upward trend" in the proportion of those 65 and older reporting medical bill problems—10.3 percent in 2010 compared to 6.9 percent in 2003. In addition, while a growing proportion of lower income non-elderly reported problems paying medical bills, the rate for higher income families is much lower and stayed relatively stable since 2003.

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