Understanding The American Medical Debt Crisis

If you’ve ever had even the slightest dealings with the United States healthcare system, then it most likely isn’t terribly surprising to you that it happens to be remarkably, remarkably expensive for both the underinsured and uninsured, often with a profound, detrimental impact on their lives at a time when they’re already vulnerable. That likely isn’t news.

What might be news to you, however, is the enormity and scale of how this problem significantly affects people’s lives. A recent Kaiser Health News report, published last week, really pointed toward the enormity of the issue, namely, that over 100 million Americans (out of nearly 330 million) are burdened with crippling amounts of medical debt.

In addition to unfairly deepening their financial troubles, these sorts of cost barriers, ironically, leave many Americans reluctant to receive the healthcare they need and deserve. That same medical debt Kaiser report compiled a number of other troubling findings relating to medical debt and healthcare affordability, including the stark realities that:

  • 58% of debts recorded for collections are for medical bills
  • Worsening healthcare costs are worsening racial and gender inequities
  • 50 million U.S. adults (roughly 1 in 5) are paying for healthcare in installments
  • Roughly 1 in 8 U.S. adults owe $10,000 or more in medical debt
  • 1 in 10 adults owe money to a loved one who covered their health expenses
  • Approximately 1 in 6 are paying off medical bills via credit
  • Collective 2019 medical debt totaled $150 billion, larger than Greece’s economy
  • Nearly half (41%) of the U.S. populace has medical debt in some form

These debt and financial barriers aren’t only a mild inconvenience. Sometimes, the difference between accessibility and inaccessibility to an essential doctor or therapist can spell the difference between life and death. For instance, one recent Yale study projected that over 335,000 lives could’ve been saved over the height of the COVID-19 pandemic had this country adopted a single-payer, universally accessible healthcare system.

But the financial and mortal toll of exorbitant medical debts doesn’t just stop there. This comprehensive deep dive will delve into just how immense and how dangerous the problem is, and what you, as a patient, can do to ameliorate the issue. 

Medical Debt Statistics

Patients who are forced into taking on serious medical debt often have to deal with the impact of that debt permeating throughout their entire lives with profound rippling effects. In addition to all the aforementioned data we mentioned in that Kaiser Health News report, the Kaiser researchers found that the indebted survey respondents were forced to:

  • Cut back on food and clothing spending (63%)
  • Take on extra work to pay the bills (40%)
  • Declare bankruptcy and/or foreclosure (17%)
  • Seek charitable fundraising aid (24%)
  • Change their living situation (19%)
  • Delay buying a home or education (28%)
  • Burn through most, if not all savings (48%)

Medical debt is a bleak, overwhelming, all-consuming problem, burning through past savings, erasing future hopes, and presently dragging people’s lives down. It often strikes the youngest and most economically vulnerable in our society; in addition to living through two recessions, adults under 30 face medical debt nearly twice as commonly as adults 65 and older. This burden can take a devastating toll on both emotional and physical wellness.

The uninsured, the underinsured, and those burdened with costly insurance expenses are all susceptible to suffering under the weight of this medical debt crisis. Furthermore, these cost disparities don’t just impact the working class, they’ve also hit the middle and even upper middle classes. According to Kaiser:

  • 68% of U.S. adults making $40k or less per year struggle with medical debt
  • 57% of U.S. adults making $40k-$89.9k per year struggle with medical debt
  • 45% of U.S. adults making $90k or more per year struggle with medical debt

Even insured individuals and individuals in higher income brackets are struggling to stay afloat under the burdening weight of healthcare debt. But why?

Why Does Healthcare Cost So Much?

The U.S. currently adheres to a uniquely privatized healthcare system. At its worst, this system enables a number of unethical practices, including price gouging, mismanaged or outright wasted expenses, and inefficient use of costly medical technology and administrative resources. 

One figure, cited in a Harvard Magazine report, estimated that the American healthcare system spends over $3.5 trillion per year on medical expenses, and that approximately 1/3rd of those expenses go to waste. 

Compounding this inefficiency is the fact that nearly half of all U.S. healthcare patients are forced to avoid care due to costs, often leading to later diagnoses, fewer prescriptions than needed, and in the absolute worst case scenario, early deaths. 

(See this West Health Institute presser for more info.)

According to a survey conducted by Morning Consult and Politico, bipartisan support for a single-payer healthcare system is strong in the U.S., with nearly 7 in 10 voters (68%) believed to be in favor of a public option health plan, and 55% believed to be in favor of the large scale reforms put forth by proposals like Medicare For All.

Despite widespread, popular support for proposed reforms to our healthcare system, such reforms have yet to be attempted or implemented in the United States. One can only hope that it’s a matter of time before these reforms do come to pass, and people’s needs are prioritized above corporate greed and profits.

Is Medical Debt Ever Forgiven?

Medical debt stays on your credit report for up to 7 years - and you’re legally entitled to pay it off, both before and after that 7-year term. Usually, most popular credit bureaus (such as Equifax) will remove the debt off your credit report after you or your insurer pays it off.

If you’re unable to pay off such expenses on your own, you may be able to turn to state financial assistance programs depending on where you live, or enlist the help of charitable organizations such as R.I.P. Medical Debt. Unfortunately, no such medical debt relief programs currently exist on the national, federal level. 

Not all serious medical expenses are avoidable, but there are steps you can take to mitigate your risk of falling into incurring these serious financial costs, like:

  • Turning to debt relief programs or peer funding
  • Paying special mind to preventative care
  • Using loans or debt consolidation
  • Relying on generic over brand name prescriptions
  • Coming up with an emergency plan
  • Utilizing outpatient facilities, urgent care, and telehealth

That last point is a big one. Although a lot of health needs are still best met in a hospital, urgent care and outpatient facilities are still effective resources to mitigate costs for the needs that could otherwise be met elsewhere. And now, thanks to the growing prominence of telehealth providers, you can have many of these needs met from the comfort of your own home!

Affordable Telehealth, No Insurance

If you’re struggling to keep up with medical expenses, we would recommend referring to more affordable online doctor providers such as Sesame Care.

Read our full Sesame Care provider review here, and you can peruse our full provider database here.

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Sarah Ryan
Sarah Ryan