1 in 3 Americans struggles to pay medical bills according to a survey of more than 50,000 people by the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Specifically, the survey found that, in the first half of 2011, 1 in 3 Americans lived in a family that
- had difficulty paying its medical bills within the previous year;
- was currently paying a medical bill over time;
- had medical bills that the family was simply unable to pay at all.
As the CDC notes, previous research had found that, in 2010, 1 in 5 Americans had faced similar financial difficulties regarding their medical costs. The new study is larger in scope and also included questions such as whether one was able to pay medical bills over time that the earlier study had not.
In a summary of the study, NPR’s Julie Rovner points out that, “not surprisingly,” those whose incomes are lower had greater challeges in paying medical bills. Those whose incomes are just above the poverty line, the “near-poor,” were ”somewhat more likely” (45.8 percent) to have difficulties with medical bills than were those whose incomes were actually below the poverty line (41.3 percent), most likely because the very poorest individuals have Medicaid. Under Medicaid, health care providers are “generally not allowed” to bill patients.
But a number of senior citizens reported having trouble paying their medical bills, a finding that underscores the need to overhaul the Medicare program, especially with 78 million baby boomers on the verge of retirement. According to the survey, 19 percent of those between the ages of 65 and 74 and 12 percent of those over age 75 had some “financial burden” in paying for their medical bill, even though they are supposed to be universally covered by the Medicare program. Once again, those with lower incomes faced a greater share of burdens.
A recent poll shows that, while President Obama’s Affordable Care Act — about whose constitutionality the Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments — remains unpopular and misunderstood, fewer people now expect the quality of their health care to worsen under the act. Nearly half (47 percent) of those polled had thought the quality of their care would worsen after the act passed, but only 32 percent think so now, the Associated Press reports:
Most of the law’s major changes have yet to take effect, and dire predictions — of lost jobs, soaring premiums and long waits to see the doctor — have not materialized. Provisions that have gone into effect, including extended coverage for young adults on their parents’ insurance and relief for seniors with high prescription costs, only had a modest impact on health care spending.
For too many Americans, paying for medical care is the real issue. Those who do not have health insurance end up paying higher costs for what care they receive. While many bristle at the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that Americans carry health insurance or pay a fine to the government, it is meant to help Americans take preventative measures and care of themselves before needing extensive medical care. As one example, many of my students do not have health insurance; they pay for their medication and for the doctors’ visits they try to avoid as long as possible out of pocket. It is not a good thing when ER doctors have become your primary care physicians.
The results from the the National Center for Health Statistics suggest that the Affordable Care Act is not the reason for higher costs but could play a part in keeping medical costs down, and keeping us healthier, in the longer term.
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