More than 100 million people in the United States are burdened with medical debt. An investigation by NPR and Kaiser Health shows the painful sacrifices many make to pay their medical and dental bills.
MARY LOUIS KELLY, REPORT:
The health care debt in the United States is now so high that it has hit more than half of all adults. That’s according to a new investigation by Kaiser Health News and NPR. The investigation also looked at the consequences of this debt, forcing tens of millions of people to make painful sacrifices to manage their medical and dental bills. Joining me now, Noam Levy with Kaiser Health News. Hello.
NOAM LEVI: Hello.
KELLY: All right. So give me more idea of the scale of this debt. I said it was so big. How big are we talking?
LEVI: Well, really, really big. In total, about 100 million people in this country currently have some form of health obligation. This is from a national survey we conducted with our team at KFF, Kaiser Family Foundation. So it’s not just people with medical bills in collections. These are people who use credit cards, payment plans and other loans to pay for health care. So that’s a lot of debt. Now, you know, I think it’s important to know that the problem would be much worse without the Affordable Care Act, which provided insurance to millions of people. But the law has not slowed the growth of high-deductible health plans, which have really helped fuel this debt crisis.
KELIE: Yes. And what does this look like only on an individual level? Tell me a fairy tale.
LEVI: I mean, it’s heartbreaking. I can’t tell you, Mary Louise, how much suffering there is. I talked to people who had lost their homes, who had to cut back on food, drain their pension accounts, postpone their education plans. One family that really stayed with me is the Bucks. Ariana and Samantha Buck live right in front of Phoenix. They have three children. They work, but they don’t have much money. And they have had their share of medical challenges, several trips to the emergency department over the years – she for ovarian cysts, and he for intestinal infection. One of their children is autistic. And they say it all equates to about $ 50,000 in debt. And this has led to a lot of savings. Ariana says it was very difficult for the children.
ARIAN BUCK: They want to go to the mall. They want to go only on trips to Sedona or Flagstaff and day trips. But even that little extra money is too much. We just don’t have it.
LEVI: And if they go out, it’s usually just fast food. Arian said they sometimes run out of school supplies. They rely on the family for Christmas presents.
BUCK: It makes you feel like a failure, like I don’t give my kids the best life possible. I mean, the best I can do for them is just put a roof over their heads.
KELLY: Wow, that’s hard. How many people have you talked to who are faced with a choice like Bucks?
LEVI: Well, our study found that more than half of Americans with health care debts say they had to make a difficult sacrifice. And we’re not just talking about low-income Americans here. I talked to my mother in Chicago, a solid middle class. She is a nurse who had to take double shifts after her twins were born prematurely to pay off a $ 80,000 debt. You know that even small debts can cause problems. I spoke to a Texas medical student who has been harassed by debt collectors for years over a $ 131 bill for an exam she received after sexual assault.
KELIE: Oh, my God. Yes. GOOD.
LEVI: Yes, it’s bad. And you know, another perverse effect of this debt is that it actually blocks patients from receiving care. We found that about 1 in 7 say they have been rejected by a doctor, hospital or other provider because they owe money. That’s what happened to Arian Buck. A few years ago, he had a really bad stomach mistake.
BUCK: I couldn’t hold anything back. I couldn’t use the bathroom properly. And I tried to call my own doctor, who I had at the time, to go to him. However, when I called to make an appointment, I was turned down because I actually owed them less than $ 100.
LEVI: Eventually he had to go to the emergency room and thankfully recovered, but the visit meant thousands of dollars in bills. And you know, the whole experience made Bucks feel pretty disappointed.
BUCK: I see other countries and I see what their health insurance is. And they don’t have that big of a problem when it comes to that. And it’s just not right. Everyone should at least be able to see a doctor when they feel unwell.
LEVI: And, unfortunately, it’s a feeling I’ve heard over and over again across the country.
KELLY: All right. Thanks for the report.
LEVI: Thank you.
KELLY: This is Noam Levy. And the ongoing NPR investigation into medical debt is in partnership with Kaiser Health News.
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