1 in 4 Americans has more than $10,000 in medical debt

Emergency department visits are a big contributor

The high cost of health care has created a world where 56% of Americans have some amount of medical debt, according to a survey from AffordableHealthInsurance.com. In addition, one in four owe $10,000 or more, and emergency departments contributed to medical debt for 44% of Americans. As a result, 46% of those with medical debt are delaying buying a home and 14% are planning on declaring bankruptcy this year.

The majority of Americans with medical debt, 59%, incurred medical debt with their own health care, while 29% say their medical debt includes expenses for dependents.

Regardless of how much they owe, or how the debt was incurred, 32% of Americans with medical debt say it’s ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ that they will be able to pay off their medical bills in their lifetime.

There is little difference between those having insurance and those without, as both report having medical debt at similar rates. Fifty-nine percent of uninsured individuals have medical debt, compared to 56% of those with insurance.

However, 25% of uninsured individuals say pregnancy contributed to their medical debt, compared to 16% of insured individuals. Similarly, 25% of uninsured respondents report incurring medical debt from vision and dental care, compared to 18% of those with insurance.

When broken down by type of insurance, those with employer-provided health insurance or health insurance purchased through a marketplace are most likely to have medical debt. Sixty-nine percent of Americans who have health insurance purchased through a marketplace have medical debt, as do 61% of Americans with employer-provided health insurance. Meanwhile, 47% of Americans who are covered by Medicare or Medicaid have medical debt.

Other top sources of medical debt are hospitalization (36%), specialist doctors and care (30%), and diagnostic tests (30%).

While most sources of medical debt are familiar, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a more recent contributor. Thirty percent of respondents with medical debt incurred debt from COVID-19 treatment, including testing, inpatient care, or outpatient treatments for the virus.

Americans with health insurance are more likely than those without to say they incurred medical debt from COVID treatment, by a rate of 31% to 22%. However, research shows that individuals without health insurance were less likely to seek treatment in the first place if they contracted COVID-19.

While 27% of Americans with medical debt say this debt isn’t preventing them from making any purchases or big life moves, for the other 73%, it’s having serious implications. Forty-six percent of Americans with medical debt say it’s preventing them from buying a home, while 43% can’t save for retirement while trying to pay off their medical bills. Twenty-six percent of respondents with medical debt are finding themselves in a cycle of financial hardship, in which they can’t get a job due to background and credit checks that reveal their debt.

Others are putting off major life events, such as getting married (24%) and having children (22%).

Americans with medical debt are coping with it in a variety of ways, including, in some cases, not dealing with it at all. Seventeen percent of respondents with medical bills aren’t currently paying off their debt. Among those who are trying to pay back their medical debt, 43% are on a payment plan, while 25% are negotiating with their health insurance companies to get their debt reduced or erased.

Twenty-three percent are trading one type of debt for another, paying medical bills with credit cards. Meanwhile, 21% are borrowing money from family and friends. One in 5 individuals with medical debt are trying to pay it off by working multiple jobs.

For 44% of respondents with medical debt, their debt is currently being handled by a collections agency.

This article was originally published by sister publication Medical Economics.