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Study: 79 million struggling to pay medical debt and bills

Connie Prater

More signs that Americans are juggling medical debt and turning to credit cards to pay their health care bills: A new study released last week by the Commonwealth Fund has found that nearly 79 million adults in the United States are struggling to pay medical bills or have medical bill problems.

The study — “Seeing Red: The Growing Burden of Medical Bills and Debt Faced by U.S. Families” — is the latest biennial look at America’s health insurance and medical care system.

Turning to credit cards
Rising medical costs and burgeoning out-of-pocket expenses have put many American families on the edge financially. Researchers found that nearly 21 million people say they took on credit card debt in the previous two years to pay medical bills, nearly 8 million took out second mortgages or loans and 28 million report using up all their savings because of medical debt.

Some 28 million people had been contacted by debt collection agencies in the past year about unpaid medical bills.

How Americans facing any medical bill problem or medical debt handled their bills in the past two years.

Bill payment method: Total (in millions) Adults 19 to 64 years old Adults 65+
Taking on credit card debt 22.9 21.3 1.6
Taking out second mortgage or loan 8.1 7.6 0.5
Using up all of savings 30.6 28 2.6
Unable to pay for basic necessities 23.3 20.9 2.4
Source: The Commonwealth Fund

“The current economic slowdown makes it even more urgent for a new administration to make universal and affordable health insurance a high priority in 2009, to ensure that no American suffers financial hardship as a result of serious illness,” Commonwealth Fund President Karen Davis said in a press release.

The Commonwealth Fund is a private foundation that supports independent research on health care policy reform. The study was based on a national telephone survey of 3,501 adults age 19 and older from June 6, 2007, to Oct. 24, 2007.

‘Taking Charge’ survey
The Commonwealth study echoes what we found in the 2008 “Taking Charge” survey. That poll surveyed 1,001 adults June 4-26, 2008 and noted a significant increase in the number of people losing sleep because of worries about health care or insurance bills.

See related:

Health care credit cards rise to fill insurance gap, Hospitals auctioning off overdue medical debt to collection agencies, Med FICO score: Good medicine or bad?, Worried about health care bills and financial ruin, 15 tips for paying high medical bills, No credit, no medical service?

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