Medical bills swamping even insured folks

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Here’s something to get your mind off the financial crisis swirling around and scaring everyone silly. Take a deep breath, relax... and start worrying about the crisis in healthcare costs.

A slew of recent reports, including one released today, show that more people are having problems paying their medical bills, that costs of insurance and hospital beds continue to rise and that fewer people are filling prescriptions and going to the doctor.

OK, one bit of bad news at a time.

About 57 million Americans, or 19.4%, reported having problems paying medical bills in 2007. That’s up from 15.1% in 2003, or 14 million additional people, according to the Center for Studying Health System Change.

The center conducts a household health survey annually with information from 18,000 people. Most people, 42.5 million, with medical bill payment woes had health insurance.


‘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,’ study author Peter J. Cunningham, a senior fellow at the center, said in a news release.

The worst consequence, one felt by 2.2 million people, was bankruptcy as a result of medical bills. But even when the damage didn’t hit quite that hard, people reported other financial disasters. They had problems paying for food and housing. And they were more likely to have unmet medical needs because of cost.

Which brings us to our second piece of bad news, this from a report from IMS Health, which tracks market trends in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. The number of prescriptions filled fell by nearly 2%, the first time drug sales fell since the company began tracking the numbers in 1996. But don’t worry too much about the drug companies. Despite falling sales, the dollar sales of prescriptions rose by 1.4% to $288 billion, according to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It may be that people are worried about spending money on drugs. But it may also be that a slew of stories about dangerous drug side effects slowed down prescriptions from doctors and patients alike, the Inquirer reported.

The slowdown in patient visits to doctors may be more related to money worries. IMS found that doctor visits dropped by 1.2% from July 2007 to July 2008. And a survey by the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners found that 22% of respondents avoided physician visits because of cost concerns, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

We’re almost done with today’s bad news on healthcare, so let’s try to put a pretty face on this report. Health insurance premiums are rising at a slower rate, according to an Associated Press report. Premiums rose about 5% -- just about even with inflation. Over the last decade, premiums have risen faster than overall inflation, so that’s pretty good. However, the average premium of $12,680 for a family, or $4,704 for an individual, gets you skimpier coverage than before. People are paying more out of their pockets than ever before.

Oh, and one more thing. If you have to go to a hospital, it’ll cost you more, according to a report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. For the uninsured, the cost of a hospital stay increased by 15%, but even for insured patients, who get a break because insurance companies negotiate lower rates, the cost went up by 6%. And (see bad news point No. 2), insured patients will be paying a greater portion of that charge out of their own pockets.

It’s a lot of bad news. So try laughing with this bit of mockery from the Onion: ‘Man succumbs to 7-year battle with health insurance.’ It’ll put a smile on your face, at least for a minute or two.

-- Susan Brink

Graphic by: Center for Studying Health System Change