Medical debt may still plague millions of American families, but the pandemic years brought a marked decline in the number of people struggling to cover their health costs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on January 17, 2023..
By the numbers: 10.5 million fewer people were in families having problems paying medical bills in 2021 than in 2019 – a 3.2 percentage point decline, according to National Health Interview Surveys.
Women were likelier to have problems paying medical bills, and the percentage of people in families struggling with bills was higher among those with children aged 0–17 years (11.5%) and adults aged 18–64 (11.3%) than in adults 65 and over (7.7%).
The uninsured were more likely than those with Medicaid or private coverage to be in families that had problems in the previous 12 months.
The percentage of people in families having problems paying bills was higher among non-Hispanic Black people (15.8%) compared with Hispanic (12.8%), non-Hispanic White (9.4%), and non-Hispanic Asian (6.1%) people.
The CARES Act, American Rescue Plan Act, and other pandemic relief legislation may have indirectly softened the blow of medical debt by providing direct monetary payments, increasing the percentage of people covered by insurance using COBRA premium subsidies and expanding eligibility for subsidies in Affordable Care Act markets, among other things. Elective procedures and outpatient care early in the pandemic also may have reduced the odds of incurring debt through fewer copays, deductibles, and coinsurance, the researchers said.
Medical debt still is a major factor in overall debt in the U.S., and can increase the risk for eviction, food insecurity and bad health outcomes.