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Medical bills still a major burden on American families, CDC study finds


By Steven Ross Johnson
Posted: January 28, 2014 - 6:30 pm ET
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Medical bills continue to impose significant financial burdens on American households, according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

More than one in four families, or 27%, had difficulty paying their medical bills in 2012, while one in 10 reported they were unable to pay at all.

The strain is most pronounced among families earning less than 250% of the federal poverty level, or about $59,000 for a family of four and those with children under the age of 18.

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Even among households with some members enrolled in health plans—such as uninsured parents with children in CHIP—nearly half said their medical bills had presented financial challenges.

The report found that 21% of families had difficulty paying medical bills even when all members of the household had health insurance or Medicare, Medicaid or another public healthcare program.

But supporters of the Patient and Protection and Affordable Care Act are hopeful that extending health insurance coverage to millions of uninsured Americans—as well as protections in the law such as the ban on annual and lifetime coverage limits—could turn the tide on healthcare's financial toll on patients.

Many of the people identified in the report as most vulnerable “could experience declines in financial burdens and potentially benefit from subsidized coverage through the Affordable Care Act,” said Fredric Blavin, a senior research associate with the non-partisan think tank Urban Institute.

Expenses related to healthcare have been one of the fastest growing drivers for economic hardship for many Americans. A Kaiser Family Foundation study released earlier this month estimated that 1 in 3 Americans struggle with medical bills. Many of them have trouble paying for housing and other basic necessities, according to Kaiser's review of records of consumers who sought debt counseling from a not-for-profit organization. Other researchers have concluded that medical debt is a common factor in household bankruptcies.

Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHSjohnson


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