Jan 18, 2023 - Health

Pandemic years saw a reduction in medical debt

Share who say someone in their family recently had issues paying medical bills
Data: National Center for Health Statistics; Note: "Recent" applies to any time in the last 12 months; Chart: Madison Dong/Axios Visuals

Medical debt may still plague millions of American families, but the pandemic years brought a marked decline in the number of people struggling to cover their health costs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today.

By the numbers: 10.5 million fewer people were in families having problems paying medical bills in 2021 than in 2019 — amounting to a 3.2 percentage point decline, according to National Health Interview Surveys.

  • Women were likelier to have problems paying medical bills, and the percentage of people in families struggling with bills was higher among those with children aged 0–17 years (11.5%) and adults aged 18–64 (11.3%) than in adults 65 and over (7.7%).
  • The uninsured were more likely than those with Medicaid or private coverage to be in families that had problems in the previous 12 months.
  • The percentage of people in families having problems paying bills was higher among non-Hispanic Black people (15.8%) compared with Hispanic (12.8%), non-Hispanic white (9.4%), and non-Hispanic Asian (6.1%) people.

Between the lines: Researchers said the CARES Act, American Rescue Plan Act, and other pandemic relief legislation may have indirectly softened the blow of medical debt by providing direct monetary payments, increasing the percentage of people covered by insurance using COBRA premium subsidies and expanding eligibility for subsidies in Affordable Care Act markets, among other things.

  • People in all age groups living in Medicaid expansion states also were less likely than those living in non-expansion states to have problems paying medical bills.
  • The dropoff in doctors visits, elective procedures and outpatient care early in the pandemic also may have reduced the odds of incurring debt through fewer copays, deductibles, and coinsurance, the researchers said.

Yes, but: Medical debt still is a major factor in overall debt in the U.S., and can increase the risk for eviction, food insecurity and bad health outcomes.

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