Medical debt afflicts the insured and the middle class, witnesses testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law. Citing a study on medical debt, David Himmelstein, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, testified that more than three-quarters of those in debt had insurance when they first got sick.
Sixty percent had private insurance, but one-third of them lost it during the course of their illness, Himmelstein said. Often illness caused job loss, and with it the loss of coverage.
Most families bankrupted by illness or medical bills are middle class, have gone to college and own homes before financial crisis hits, he said.
Other studies presented at the Tuesday hearing indicated that people have trouble paying their medical bills.
Thirty-four percent of adults under the age of 65 have problems related to medical bills or accrued medical debt, according to a fact sheet provided by the Access Project in Boston. An estimated 58 million are at risk of incurring medical bills they may not be able to afford, and this includes 17.6 million privately insured adults.
Medical bankruptcy is not just a consequence of being poor, said Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), who has introduced legislation to cover all Americans through the Medicare program.
Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University School of Law, disputed the notion that medical debt is a major contributor to bankruptcy filings. Most studies of bankruptcy filers have failed to find a relationship between health debt and bankruptcy, although medical debt does play a role in some bankruptcy filings, he said. -- by Jennifer Lubell