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Medical bills are a burden for more than 1 in 4 families, CDC says

FamilyLaws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeU.S. Centers for Disease Control and PreventionDiseases and Illnesses

A crushing medical bill can cause money problems not just for a cash-strapped patient but for his or her entire family. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more than one in four U.S. families recently experienced a financial burden due to the cost of medical care.

Among Americans who participated in the National Health Interview Survey in 2012, 8.9% said they were currently having problems paying a medical bill and another 7.6% said they had been in that situation sometime in the previous 12 months. In addition, 21.4% of those surveyed said they were in the process of paying off a medical bill over an extended period of time.

Altogether, 26.8% of people reached by the interviewers said they experienced some type of financial burden due to medical bills in the previous year, according to a report released Tuesday by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Not surprisingly, the lower a family’s income, the greater the odds that someone in the family had trouble paying a medical bill. Among families with income below 139% of the federal poverty level, 26% had been in that boat sometime in the last year; among families with incomes that were at least 400% of the federal poverty level, only 6.4% faced that problem.

Having kids also made families more vulnerable to medical bills that were beyond their reach. For instance, among adults who were part of a family with at least one child, 12.1% had a bill they could not pay when interviewers reached them and 29.8% were paying off a bill over time. Among single adults living alone, those figures were 7.1% and 14.7%, respectively.

Another risk factor was having even one family member without health insurance. Among adults in families in which some people were insured and others were not, 46% experienced some type of financial burden due to the cost of medical care. Things were slightly better for families that were completely uninsured -- 39.7% of adults in such families told interviewers they had a medical-related financial burden.

But even in families in which everyone had health insurance (either public or private), about 21% of adults surveyed suffered financially due to medical bills, according to the study.

Family members often benefit by pooling their incomes and expenses, noted Robin A. Cohen and Whitney K. Kirzinger, the authors of the report. “However, when one family member experiences a financial burden of medical care, the entire family may be at risk for financial burden,” they wrote. 

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