Bernie Sanders overstating medical debt-bankruptcy link, newspaper analysis finds

A Washington Post fact checker analysis has found flaws in a claim by Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders regarding the number of Americans who go bankrupt each year due to medical bills.

In a tweet Aug. 20, the U.S. senator wrote, "500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills. They didn't go to Las Vegas and blow their money at a casino. Their crime was that they got sick."

Mr. Sanders, I-Vt., reiterated the claim in an interview Aug. 25 on CNN's "State of the Union." He said: "Right now, you've got 87 million people who are uninsured, who are underinsured; 500,000 people go bankrupt every year because they cannot pay their outrageous medical bills. You've got 30,000 people who are dying. People are spending 10, 15, 20 percent of their limited incomes on healthcare."

A Sanders campaign aide told the Washington Post the senator's claim regarding bankruptcies and medical bills is based on an editorial published earlier this year by the American Journal of Public Health.

The study, conducted by two physicians, two attorneys and a sociologist from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, surveyed 910 people in the U.S. who filed for personal bankruptcy between 2013 and 2016. Researchers abstracted the filers' court record data and mailed a questionnaire to them.

More than half of respondents (58.5 percent) "very much" or "somewhat" agreed that medical expenses contributed to their bankruptcy, and 44.3 percent cited illness-related work loss as a contributor. Two-thirds of respondents (66.5 percent) cited at least one of those two medical reasons, which researchers said represents about 530,000 medical bankruptcies annually.

But the Washington Post's analysis said the study takes into account all people who cited medical bills or illness as a contributing factor for declaring bankruptcy, not just people who cited it as the primary reason.

"Bankruptcies typically involve multiple causes, and in some cases, medical bills may be a small piece of the pie. Sanders glosses over those nuances, stating that healthcare costs drove people to bankruptcy in all 500,000 cases. The study he's citing doesn't establish that," the analysis concluded.

A Sanders campaign aide told the Washington Post: "Medical debt caused by the greed of pharmaceutical and insurance corporations is crippling millions of Americans, and it's clear that 500,000 is the bare minimum number of bankruptcy filings caused by medical debt each year."

The aide added: "Research [in 2009] attributed 62 percent of bankruptcies to medical problems in 2007 and found them rising since 2001. And according to reports from the federal judiciary, the total non-business bankruptcy appears to hover around 1 million cases annually since 2006. Over 40 percent of Americans, or 79 million people, are struggling with medical debt, which is why Bernie knows we must pass Medicare for all."

Read the full analysis here.


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