TUESDAY, June 4 (HealthDay News) -- The proportion of families
in the United States that can't keep up with their medical bills
declined between 2011 and 2012, according to a report from the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the news might not
necessarily be cause for celebration.
According to the report released Tuesday by the CDC's National
Center for Health Statistics, the share of people under age 65 in
families struggling to pay their health care bills decreased from
21.7 percent in the first six months of 2011 to 20.3 percent in the
first six months of 2012.
Despite this improvement, the families of more than 54 million
Americans continue to carry health care debt they cannot manage.
This particularly holds true for families who are poor or have
restricted access to health coverage, said study author Robin
Cohen, a CDC health statistician.
"During this time period, those who were uninsured or who had public coverage were about twice as likely as those with private coverage to have problems paying medical bills," Cohen said.
Fewer families may face overwhelming medical bills because some
are foregoing health care coverage due to joblessness and other
economic factors, an expert said.
The report draws its conclusions from data gathered during the
CDC's annual National Health Interview Survey. It defines medical
bills as bills for doctors, dentists, hospitals, therapists,
medication, equipment, nursing homes or home care.
A drop in the number of families struggling with medical bills
may seem like a positive development, but it likely results from
darker economic trends, said Kathleen Stoll, director of health
policy for Families USA, a nonprofit and nonpartisan health care
Stoll believes that fewer families are struggling with medical
bills because chronic unemployment is causing many to skip needed
"When people have insurance, they go to the doctor," she said. "When they lose their job, they often lose their health insurance coverage. Without insurance, they are reluctant to go to the doctor at all. Because of that, they have fewer medical bills."
Stoll said the decrease observed in the CDC study comes while
the United States is slowly recovering from its economic downturn,
and before the major provisions of the Affordable Care Act become
active in 2014.
Health care reform, however, may have contributed to
improvements in one area: the ability of the families of young
people to manage medical bills.
Health care reform requires private insurers to cover children
and young adults up to age 26 under their parents' health plan,
regardless of preexisting conditions. This provision took effect in
The CDC study found that among children up to 17 years old, the
percentage of those who were in families having problems paying
medical bills decreased from 23.7 percent in the first six months
of 2011 to 21.8 percent in the first six months of 2012. That
improvement slightly outpaced the overall improvement in families'
ability to pay medical bills.
"It's pretty much a parallel drop, but I'd wonder there if the preexisting conditions protections for young adults have started to help," Stoll said.
Economic status and access to insurance play a major part in the
ability to handle medical debt, the report found.
Cohen reported that 36.3 percent of people without insurance and
25.6 percent of people with public health coverage were in families
having problems paying medical bills, compared with 14 percent of
those with private coverage.
During the period in question, people in families who were poor
or near poor were twice as likely as those who were not poor to be
struggling with medical debt, the study found.
Stoll said she is looking forward to the results of this annual
study once they begin to reflect the full impact of health care
"I think we'll see much more dramatic numbers if we look at this for the first six months in 2014, when the expanded coverage provisions of the Affordable Care Act kick in," she said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about
Affordable Care Act.
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