4:50pm

Wed March 7, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

1 In 3 Americans Is Having A Hard Time Paying Medical Bills

While politicians and soon, the Supreme Court, are fighting about the fate of the Affordable Care Act, a new government study finds that a growing number of Americans are having difficulty coping with the high cost of health care.

During the first six months of 2011, one in three people lived in a family that had trouble paying its medical bills within the previous year; was currently paying a medical bill over time; or currently had a medical bill the family was unable to pay at all. That's according to a survey of more than 50,000 people by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier studies had shown that one in five Americans had trouble paying their medical bills. But this study is larger and asked questions – such as whether people are paying medical bills over time – that researchers have not asked previously.

The news was not pretty.

Not surprisingly, those with lower incomes had the most difficult time paying their bills. The "near-poor" — those with incomes just above the poverty line — were somewhat more likely (45.8 percent) to experience problems with medical bills than those with incomes actually below the poverty line (41.3 percent). That is likely because at least some of the very poorest people have Medicaid, which generally does not allow health care providers to bill its beneficiaries.

What was somewhat surprising: Even those over age 65 reported having troubled paying for medical care. Nineteen percent of those between age 65 and 74 and 12 percent of those over age 75 reported some financial burden for medical care, even though that population is almost universally covered by the Medicare program. The study found those problems were, like those for the under-65 population, more likely to be suffered by those with lower incomes.

Policymakers may need to pay attention to those numbers as they look at ways to overhaul the Medicare program to shore up its finances for the oncoming retirement of 78 million baby boomers.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.