Having health insurance doesn't mean patients will avoid medical debt or problems paying their medical bills, according to new research by the Commonwealth Fund.
Researchers took a closer look at data from the fund's 2003 Biennial Health Insurance Survey. About 16% of adults under age 65 with insurance year-round weren't able to pay their medical bills within the past year, and 15% were carrying recent or accrued medical debt, according to the survey.
The findings have negative implications for healthcare providers, which have been writing off big chunks of bad debt in recent years and providing more free care to patients. With employers increasingly adopting health plans that shift more costs to patients, providers' burden might grow, said Michelle Doty, a senior analyst for the Commonwealth Fund and one of three authors of the report.
"It's becoming harder to distinguish the uninsured from the insured," Doty said. "What we're seeing is a general erosion of coverage in the types of benefits they have."
According to the 2003 survey, an estimated 77 million Americans ages 19 and older, both insured and uninsured, had problems paying medical bills or had recent or accrued medical debt in 2003. That amounted to 37% of the adult population. An estimated 15 million of those Americans, or 7% of all adults, had racked up large credit card debt or borrowed against home equity to pay for medical care. And about 37 million had been contacted by a collection agency over medical bills.
While the uninsured continued to be the most vulnerable to medical-related financial problems, a significant percentage of insured Americans also struggled. About 57% of adults having current-year difficulties with medical bills were insured at the time the problem began, the researchers found. Overall, 70% of those reporting debt in 2003 had insurance.