‘Profitable health care system’ blamed as US medical debt hits $ 140 billion


A new study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that people in the United States now owe collection agencies an astronomical $ 140 billion over unpaid medical bills, making health care the nation’s largest source of collection debt.

Researchers estimate that as of June 2020, about one in five people in the United States had medical debt in collection, meaning their debt had been sold to a third party tasked with collecting the money, often by bullying low-income people who are unable to pay.

“This is not the sign of a broken system”, tweeted Charles Idelson, spokesperson for National Nurses United. “It’s a profiteering healthcare system that works just the way corporate fraudsters want it to – and the collateral damage of those whose lives are squeezed by unpayable and outrageously inflated debt doesn’t concern them.”

According to the new study, medical debt was highest among people living in the South, especially in “low-income communities in states that have not extended Medicaid.” A dozen states, all controlled by Republicans, have refuse expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, depriving millions of poor and vulnerable people of save lives health coverage.

“If you think of Americans who get phone calls, letters and knocking on the door from debt collectors, it’s more often than not because of the American health care system,” Neale Mahoney, health economist at the Stanford University and lead author of the article, Told the New York Times.

To estimate the level of medical debt in collections in the United States, the researchers looked at consumer credit reports dated between January 2009 and June 2020, which means that the new figures reflect payments owed for healthcare. health provided before the coronavirus pandemic, which likely made it even more difficult for Americans. to pay for medical expenses.

A national news investigation conducted by the Commonwealth Fund found that more than a third of insured U.S. adults and half of uninsured adults had struggled to pay their medical bills or pay off their medical debts in the past year.

“They suffered from bad credit. They were unable to afford basic necessities like food, heat or their rent,” said Dr Sara Collins, Commonwealth Fund vice president for health. health care coverage, access and monitoring. USA today.

The discoveries of the new JAMA study suggest that medical debt has skyrocketed in recent years, given that 2018 research estimated that Americans held $ 81 billion in medical debt in 2016. Additionally, the latest study necessarily underestimates the level of US medical debt because it only analyzes debt in collection – not all unpaid bills due to healthcare providers such as hospitals, which often strike uninsured patients. with exorbitant prices.

“The growing number of lawsuits that hospitals file against patients to collect debts, which can result in legal fees or wage garnishments, are not included in the [$140 billion] figure,” Time reporters Sarah Kliff and Margot Sanger-Katz noted on Tuesday. “Neither are the medical bills that patients pay with credit cards or long-term payment plans.”

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