Even 20% of insured Americans face burdens of medical debt: 5 key survey findings

More than a quarter of working age Americans, those with and without insurance combined, experience problems paying their medical bills. This has serious repercussions on their daily lives, including postponing care, using up all or most of their savings and curbing spending on food and clothing.

A new poll, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and New York Times, provides a detailed look at the sacrifices both insured and uninsured Americans make to pay their medical bills. Among Americans aged 65 or under who have insurance, 20 percent report problems paying medical bills in the past year. That figure is greater for the uninsured, as expected, with 53 percent experiencing serious financial challenges.

The survey finds that once someone has problems paying a bill, insurance coverage doesn't make a significant difference in the struggles they face. Oftentimes the problematic bills are those that come from care received out of network or unexpected claim denials. Among those facing problems, almost identical shares of the insured (44 percent) and uninsured (45 percent) say the bills had a major impact on their families.

Here are five major takeaways from the survey.

1. Both the insured and uninsured take similar actions when experiencing problems paying bills. These include putting off vacations or other major household purchases (77 percent of insured; 64 percent of uninsured), curbing spending on basic household items (75 percent of insured; 62 percent of uninsured) and using up all or most of their savings (63 percent of insured; 51 percent of uninsured).

2. Skipping or postponing other healthcare in the past year because of the cost was also common. Even for those who have insurance, 62 percent of people having problems with medical bills delayed dental care, 43 percent skipped physician-recommended tests or treatment and 41 percent did not fill a prescription.

3. Among those with medical bill problems, 31 percent say the total reached at least $5,000, including 13 percent who say the total hit at least $10,000. One in four (24 percent) said their bills totaled less than $1,000.

4. Among the insured with bill problems, 26 percent said they received unexpected claim denials and 32 percent said they received care from an out-of-network provider their insurance wouldn't cover. Of those receiving OON charges, 69 percent were unaware that the provider was not in their plan's network.

5. Difficulty paying medical bills makes people more likely than their peers to negotiate prices or shop around for healthcare. However, 69 percent of those with medical bill problems who shopped around for a lower price said it was difficult to learn how much they would have to pay. Similarly, 67 percent of those who tried to negotiate price with a provider said their efforts were unsuccessful.

Here is a link to the survey, including its methodology. Here is a link to New York Times' coverage of the findings, including quotes and accounts from people experiencing problems paying bills. 


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