CDC: 20% of Households Struggle With Medical Bills

Cari Nierenberg

March 07, 2012

March 7, 2012 — One in three people is living in a family that has felt the financial burden of medical care, a new government report shows.

This figure includes people who in the first half of 2011 couldn't afford to pay their medical bills at all or were possibly paying the bill over an extended period of time.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, an estimated 1 in 5 people in the U.S. said they lived in a family having problems paying medical bills in "the last 12 months." Those bills could have been for doctors, dentists, hospitals, therapists, medication, medical equipment, nursing home, or home health care.

Although the report found that an estimated 20% of Americans surveyed said they were having difficulty paying a medical bill, "this may or may not be a problem," says researcher Robin Cohen, PhD, a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics.

For example, if a family was paying monthly installments for a large dental bill, such as for a teen who was getting braces or an adult who had LASIK eye surgery, that would be considered having trouble paying a medical bill since you can't afford to pay the entire bill at once. The study did not look at the reasons why people were struggling with medical expenses.

This data were collected between January and June 2011 from more than 52,000 people who were participating in the National Health Interview Survey.

Struggling With Medical Expenses

For the first time, the survey included three specific questions attempting to understand how families were dealing with medical bills. Participants were asked whether they had problems paying medical bills during the last year, if they had medical bills they were paying over time, and if they had medical bills they couldn't pay at all.

"Finances are a big part of health care access and utilization, and we included these new questions to help measure and monitor these changes," Cohen tells WebMD.

The survey found an estimated 1 in 4 people lived in a household that was paying medical bills over time. One in 10 people lived in a household that had medical bills they were unable to pay at all. 

Surprisingly, as people got older, the chances of them living in a family experiencing financial strains from medical care were reduced.

Researchers found that in the first six months of 2011, children up to age 17 were five times as likely as adults aged 75 and older to live in a family that couldn't pay medical bills at all, and three times as likely to be in a household that was paying medical expenses over time.  

The survey reveals that 1 in 5 people under age 65 considered poor and more than 1 in 5 people in this age group who were "near poor," or at an income between 100% and 200% of the poverty level, were in families unable to pay their medical bills at all.


Robin A. Cohen, PhD, statistician, National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, Md.

National Center for Health Statistics: "Financial Burden of Medical Care: Early Release of Estimates From the National Health Interview Survey, January-June 2001."


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