Americans Troubled by Rising Medical Bills, Studies Find

Americans Troubled by Rising Medical Bills, Studies Find
Evan Mantyk

NEW YORK—Two studies released on Wednesday found that the cost of healthcare is rising significantly and more Americans are having trouble paying their medical bills.

“Increases in problems paying medical bills are affecting not only those who have always struggled with medical costs—low-income and uninsured people—but also an increasing number of insured middle-income families,” said Peter J. Cunningham, author of a study from the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC).

The HSC study found that the proportion of Americans in families with problems paying medical bills increased to 19.4 percent in 2007, up from 15.1 percent in 2003. That growth translates to more than 57 million Americans in families with medical bill problems in 2007—an increase of 14 million people since 2003.

While rates of medical bill problems remained stable for elderly Americans, more nonelderly insured and uninsured people, alike, faced medical bill problems in 2007, the study found. And, although the rate of medical bill problems is much higher for uninsured people, most people with medical bill problems—42.5 million—had some insurance coverage, the study found.

Another study, released by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust (HRET), found that premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance rose to $12,680 annually for family coverage this year—with employees on average paying $3,354 out of their paychecks annually to cover their share of the cost.  The study also found that the scope of that coverage has changed, with many more workers now enrolled in high-deductible plans.

“With rising deductibles, more and more people face a substantial amount out of pocket for their health care before their insurance fully kicks in,” Kaiser President and CEO Drew Altman said. “Health insurance is steadily becoming less comprehensive, and it’s no wonder that in today’s tough economic climate many families count health care costs as one of their top pocketbook issues.”

Premiums rose a modest 5 percent this year, but they have more than doubled since 1999 when total family premiums stood at $5,791—of which workers paid $1,543. 

“Even modest growth in premiums and deductibles can result in financial challenges for many working families, particularly when coupled with high food and gas prices in 2008.  But rising health care costs are also a burden on employers, particularly small businesses,” said John Combes, M.D, of HRET.

This year many workers are also facing higher deductibles in their plans, including a growing number with general plan deductibles of at least $1,000—18 percent of all covered workers in 2008, up from 12 percent last year.

The shift has been most dramatic for workers in small businesses with three to 199 workers, where more than one in three covered workers must pay at least $1,000 out of pocket before their plan generally will start to pay a share of their health-care bills—rising from 21 percent last year.  For workers facing deductibles in Preferred Provider Organizations, the most common type of plan, the average deductible rose to $560 in 2008, up nearly $100 from 2007.  

Evan Mantyk is an English teacher in New York and President of the Society of Classical Poets.