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Medical Bill Trouble Isn’t Worse; It’s Also Not Getting Better

By Lisa Zamosky

With all the talk these days about the rising cost of health care, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently came out with a new study with somewhat surprising results: Although more than one in five American families had trouble paying medical bills in 2010, that number hasn’t changed much since 2007.

That’s especially surprising given the recession we’ve been struggling with since 2007 and the fact that health care costs continue to rise faster than incomes. So what gives?

Cutting Care

It turns out if you stop buying something it gets easier to pay for it. That’s essentially the dynamic researchers describe for the reason behind the steady state of medical bill troubles in the country over the past few years.

According to the report, the number of uninsured Americans rose from nearly 43 million in 2007 to just fewer than 52 million in 2010 and during that same period, people cut back on medical care.

Medical Bills Are Still Hard to Pay

Just because the number of people having trouble paying medical bills hasn’t increased in recent years doesn’t mean rising medical costs have ebbed — quite the contrary.

According to the study, since 2003 the number of families that struggled to pay their medical bills rose by more than a third from 15% to nearly 21% in 2010. And having a hard time with medical bills comes with other serious consequences:

  • Two-thirds of the people said they had a hard time paying for food, clothing or housing, among other necessities
  • Nearly two-thirds were contacted by a collection agency and saw their family’s credit rating decline
  • One in four people with medical bills considered filing for bankruptcy because of their medical debt
  • One in five people actually did file for bankruptcy

What’s more, of those who struggled to pay off medical debt in 2010, 59% had health insurance at the time. On average, families who reported problems carried ,500 worth of medical debt. More than half said it would take over a year to pay it off.

Finding Health Care You Can Afford

If you’re struggling to cover your medical bills, there may be alternative ways to get the care you need at a price you can afford.

One option is to look into federally funded health centers that treat people regardless of their ability to pay. You can find one near you on the website of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

And I’ve talked before about bargaining for better health care prices, a practice that even consumers with health insurance need to become increasingly comfortable with as they shoulder more of the cost of their health care.

Insurance Coverage

Although this study and others before it have made clear that having health insurance is no guarantee of financial security, without insurance, the threat of financial ruin because of a health problem is even higher.

If you have a pre-existing health condition and have been without health insurance for at least six months, check into the government’s Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plans (PCIP).

And you can search for all of the government programs for which you may be eligible at benefits.gov. You can also speak with someone by phone at: 800-FED-INFO.

What are you doing to deal with medical costs? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Got a health insurance question? Post it below. I’ll respond in this blog each Thursday to as many of your questions as I can.

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