We track a lot of numbers in health care: how much we spend on health as a share of our economy; the number of uninsured; and the share of the federal budget allocated to health programs. What we don't track — and a number the Congressional Budget Office cannot score — is the statistic that means the most to the American people: the share of the public having problems paying their health care bills.

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Data: Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times Medical Bills Survey (conducted August 28-September 28, 2015); Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

The bottom line: The “medical bills score" is the single most important measure of how we are doing in health care from the public's perspective. And ultimately, if Congress ever passes a new health care bill, it is how the public will evaluate that plan — from Graham-Cassidy to Medicare for All and everything in between.

The numbers that matter: As we found in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in February:

  • 31% of Americans age 18-64 report they or a family member face problems paying their health care bills.
  • But that number shoots up to 57% for people who are sick.

It makes sense that people who use more care have more health care bills, but it also reveals how poorly our system performs from a consumer perspective when people who need care the most are protected the least by insurance coverage.

The impact: People are not just whining about necessary cost sharing. In a survey we did with the New York Times, we found that:

  • 70% of people with problems paying medical bills report cutting back on food, clothing and other basic necessities.
  • 59% report using up most of their savings.
  • 41% say they've taken an extra job to help pay for their health care.

Not surprisingly, the uninsured (41%) are more likely to have problems paying medical bills. But this is not a problem limited to the uninsured: 30% of the insured – think voters — have problems with medical bills.

The back story: The share of the public reporting problems paying their medical bills has not moved much in recent years. The Affordable Care Act has extended coverage and better financial protection to tens of millions, but it doesn't have much of an impact on affordability beyond people covered by the Medicaid expansion and the marketplaces.

In the far larger employer-based health insurance sector, deductibles and other forms of cost sharing have been growing about five times faster than wages, and deductibles have been growing especially sharply for people who work for smaller employers. .

What to watch: Health care is a pocketbook issue for most of the public and the American people have their own scoring system. They may give this or that mostly partisan response about a health reform idea on a poll, but until they see how they'll get help paying their health care bills, they will ultimately be disappointed by every health reform plan.

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Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
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