CDC: One In Five Americans Can't Pay Medical Bills

By: CBS News (Posted by Melissa Brunner)
By: CBS News (Posted by Melissa Brunner)

(CBS News) When times are tough economically, medical care may suffer.

Recent surveys suggest Americans are skipping necessary medical care or not getting prescriptions filled because of cost concerns.

A new government report finds about one in five Americans face problems paying their medical bills, but things may be improving.

Statisticians at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics reviewed government survey data, and found 20.3 percent of U.S. adults under 65 had troubles paying medical expenses during the first six months of 2012. That's down though, from 21.7 percent during the first six months of the previous year. The new statistics, however, still reflect that more than 54 million Americans are facing troubles meeting medical costs.

Expenses may include medication, equipment, home care, or trips to doctors, dentists, hospitals and therapists.

Children 17 and younger were more likely to be in families who had bill problems than adult-only homes.

The new statistical report paints a snapshot of U.S. health care ahead of the Jan. 2014 implementation of the provision in the Affordable Care Act that mandates insurance for all Americans.

Among those facing problems with medical bills over the past year, 36 percent were uninsured, 14 percent had private coverage and more than 25 percent had public insurance coverage.

From 2011 to 2012, people who were uninsured and those with public coverage were roughly two times more likely to have problems paying medical bills than those with private medical insurance.

Thirty percent of people with bill troubles considered themselves "poor," 34 percent said "near poor," and 14 percent were "not poor."

The full report was released on the CDC's website.

Kathleen Stoll, director of health policy for Families USA, a nonprofit health care advocacy group, told HealthDay that the falling rates don't signal good news, but that fewer families are struggling with bills because they are simply skipping health care altogether.

"When people have insurance, they go to the doctor," said Stoll. "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."

"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 added.

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