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Study: 21 percent of Americans struggling with high medical debt

The Center for Studying Health System Change recently released its findings in a study of medical debt in the United States. Many bankruptcy lawyers agree that medical debt is one of the issues that can tip the scale for a family, leading to financial distress. Often large medical debt can arise from an unexpected medical emergency. The recent study says that one in five study participants reported having trouble paying medical bills in 2010.

The study authors were somewhat surprised by the findings, as the numbers did not change much from 2007 to 2010. The authors say they expected to see some form of change after the economy collapsed in 2008. However, the authors conclude that some of the expected change may have been absorbed by a decrease in discretionary medical visits during the recession, something that other studies have found to be true.

The rather large survey included roughly 17,000 consumers. Researchers say that roughly 21 percent of the telephone respondents reported having trouble with medical bills. The average total medical debt was $6,500 per family. Roughly half of those who were having trouble with medical debts said it would take more than a year to pay off their debt. Seventeen percent of the respondents said they did not expect to pay down their medical bills for at least five years, or more.

Significantly, almost all of the study participants who were struggling with medical debt said that they were having "serious financial consequences" as a result of the medical debt.

Slightly more than 10 percent of survey participants who were in age 65 or older reported having problems with medical debt. That is an increase from the 6.9 percent of older Americans who reported struggling with medical debt that was recorded in 2003. Overall, 66 percent of all respondents who were experienced trouble with medical debt said that they were unable to afford other necessities.

Although the recent study showed that roughly 21 percent of Americans are struggling with medical debt, and that proportion has remained fairly steady since 2007, the researchers believe that, "If wages continue to stagnate and health care costs continue to grow faster than real income, the financial burden of health care likely will grow more acute."

Source: MedPage Today, "One in Five Struggles to Pay Medical Bills," Emily P. Walker, Dec. 29, 2011

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