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60% of Americans Have Been in Debt Due to Medical Bills

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The choice to seek medical care isn’t often a choice at all — anyone who’s ever experienced a medical emergency or dealt with a chronic, long-term illness knows this to be true. But even with the foresight to plan out medical treatment well in advance, such as with an elective surgery or health screening, many patients are still left with hospital bills they can’t pay.

Sixty percent of Americans have been in debt due to medical bills, a February 2021 LendingTree survey of 1,550 Americans found. Many said that medical debt is keeping them from achieving financial milestones like buying a home or saving for retirement. Of those who have medical debt, they owe thousands on average. See what else we found in the analysis below.

Key findings

Medical debt is a costly burden on Americans’ finances

Whether you’re scheduling a mammogram or calling an ambulance in an emergency, it should be a no-brainer to seek medical treatment when you need it. But Americans who can’t afford medical care might think twice before visiting a doctor to avoid getting stuck with debt over it.

Sixty percent of Americans have been in debt due to medical expenses, our survey found.

Medical debt can weigh as heavily on a household’s budget as any other debt, such as credit card debt, auto loans or even student loans. On average, Americans with medical debt owe between $5,000 to $9,999. Most (83%) owe more than $1,000, and 13% owe more than $20,000.

Medical debt affects virtually everyone, but it can be most burdensome for the people who need chronic treatment, such as patients with cancer, heart disease or diabetes. Long-term illnesses can keep patients in and out of the hospital, and the only thing they know for certain is that they’re getting a bill at the end of their visit. Of those with medical debt, 82% said they or a member of their household have an underlying health condition.

Millennials, parents most likely to have medical debt

Nearly half (48%) of millennials have medical debt, more than any other age group. Two-thirds of millennials have been in debt due to medical bills at some point, as have a similar percentage of Gen Xers (68%). See the generational breakdown below:

Medical debt by generation
Age group Has been in debt due to medical bills Currently has medical debt
Gen Z 50% 29%
Millennials 66% 48%
Gen X 68% 42%
Baby boomers 49% 23%

Additionally, 75% of parents with young children have been in debt due to medical bills, and 54% currently have medical debt. It makes sense that parents with kids under 18 are in medical debt at a higher rate — between wellness checkups and broken bones, health care costs for families can add up. And the more family members, the more potential medical bills.

Medical debt holds Americans back from buying homes, having kids

The cost of medical care may prevent people from seeking the services they need in the present, but it can also prevent them from planning for the future. Seventy-two percent of those who have had medical debt said that it prevented them from achieving key milestones, including:

  • Saving for retirement (34%)
  • Paying off other debts (25%)
  • Buying a home (19%)
  • Having kids (10%)

Medical debt is a source of anxiety and stress for those who carry it — the majority of those in medical debt (68%) have lost sleep worrying about it.

Emergency room visits, childbirth leave consumers indebted

If you’re seeking emergency medical care, you may not have time to ask how much the ambulance ride will cost or if the health care provider is in yournetwork. Emergency room visits are the leading cause of medical debt, leaving many patients with a hospital bill after getting life-saving care.

Visits with a doctor or specialist also contribute to a good portion of medical debt in America. Specialists can come with higher copays, and some services like tests and lab fees may not be fully covered by insurance. For example, a dermatologist visit may be considered elective, leaving the patient responsible for out-of-pocket expenses even if they’re testing a suspicious mole for cancer.

Childbirth costs round out the top three causes of medical debt. The cost of childbirth in America can range from $10,000 to $30,000 or more.

Additionally, the coronavirus is responsible for about one in 10 patients with medical debt.

Coronavirus hardship: If you’re having trouble paying your debts due to the coronavirus pandemic, visit www.lendingtree.com/coronavirus for tips on how to manage your money.

How Americans paid off their medical bills

Unexpected hospital bills can derail a household’s carefully crafted budget, and many people have to borrow money and take out more debt to pay off their medical debt. Some Americans even have to take on a side gig or borrow money from friends or family to pay off their medical bills.

Among those who have already paid off their medical bills, here’s how they did it:

  • 33% used money from their savings
  • 23% worked with their healthcare provider on a payment plan
  • 23% took on credit card debt
  • 16% cut other expenses from their budgets
  • 13% took on another job
  • 10% took out a personal loan
  • 9% borrowed from a loved one
  • 8% declared bankruptcy
  • 5% tapped into their retirement savings

About half of consumers think the best way to face medical debt is by working with the hospital on a payment plan. Only 16% of people think that using a credit card is the best way to pay off medical debt, even though 23% of people who had medical debt said they paid it off using a credit card.

When tax season comes around, you may be able to deduct money used to pay for medical or dental care, up to 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. This is an effective way for families to save money on the cost of health care — however, 44% of those with medical debt didn’t know they could deduct it from their taxes.

Most try to negotiate their medical bill, with a high success rate

Most of those who have had medical debt (75%) tried to negotiate their medical debt, though older consumers were least likely to negotiate. Of those who have negotiated a medical bill, 66% did so themselves, while 26% used a service to help them and 9% had another family member negotiate on their behalf.

When you attempt to negotiate your medical bills, there’s really nothing to lose — the vast majority of those who tried to negotiate were at least partially successful.

Here are a few tips for negotiating medical debt:

  • Understand what should be covered by your insurance. Request a Summary of Benefits and Coverage to find out the costs you’re responsible for in terms of copay, coinsurance and a deductible.
  • Get an itemized copy of your hospital bill. Search for errors like charges for preventive care, double billing and incorrect coding. You can ask your insurer for help, and a third-party medical bill reviewing service can also help you with this step.
  • See if you qualify for payment assistance programs. Nonprofit hospitals are required to offer payment assistance for patients who meet certain income requirements, but the specific details depend on the state in which you live.
  • Offer to pay upfront for a discount. If you have the funds to pay most of your medical bill upfront, you may be able to save up to 20% off your bill. Speak directly with a representative from the billing department, and take notes of your communication.
  • Enroll in a payment plan through the health care provider. Many hospitals offer interest-free payment plans, which may pose a better alternative to medical credit cards or loans.

Methodology

LendingTree commissioned Qualtrics to field an online survey of 1,550 Americans, conducted Feb. 19, 2021 through Feb. 22, 2021. The survey was administered using a non-probability-based sample, and quotas were used to ensure the sample base represented the overall population. All responses were reviewed by researchers for quality control.

We defined generations as the following ages in 2021:

  • Generation Z: 18 to 24
  • Millennial: 25 to 40
  • Generation X: 41 to 55
  • Baby boomer: 56 to 75

While the survey also included consumers from the silent generation (defined as those 76 and older), the sample size was too small to include findings related to that group in the generational breakdowns.

 

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