Mar 11, 2022 - Health

America's giant medical debt

A man holding a sign with "Medical debt is unjust written" on it
A man holds a sign as he takes part in the March for Medicare for All in Washington, D.C., in July 2021. Photo: Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images

Americans owe at least $195 billion of medical debt, despite 90% of the population having some kind of health coverage, according to new research from the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Why it matters: People are spending down their savings and skimping on food, clothing and household items to pay their medical bills.

About 16 million people, or 6% of U.S. adults, owe more than $1,000 in medical bills, and 3 million people owe more than $10,000.

  • The financial burden falls disproportionately on people with disabilities, those in generally poor health, Black Americans and people living in the South or in non-Medicaid expansion states, per the research.

Go deeper: 16% of privately-insured adults say they would need to take on credit card debt to meet an unexpected $400 medical expense, while 7% would borrow money from friends or family, per the research, which focused on adults who reported having more than $250 in unpaid bills as of December 2019. 

It's not yet clear how much the pandemic and the recession factor into the picture, in part because man people delayed or went without care. There also was a small shift from employer-based coverage to Medicaid, which has little or no cost-sharing.

  • While the new federal ban on surprise billing limits exposure to some unexpected expenses, it only covers a fraction of the large medical bills many Americans face, the researchers say.
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