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Medical Debt Is Pervasive – and More Often Than Not, Underestimated.

“Diagnosis: Debt” is an ongoing reporting partnership between KHN and NPR. It explores the scale, impact, and causes of medical debt in America. It draws on a study, “KFF Health Care Debt Survey” released in late June that pulls information from a Kaiser News poll, and couples it with data from the Urban Institute and J P Morgan to provide the most comprehensive study of medical debt to date. It is worth a read for anyone in the financial services business. Two takeaways: 1) Medical debt is far more pervasive than commonly understood, and 2) Even that fact is understated as it ignores related non-medical caregiving expenses.

It’s also worth noting, medical debt is not limited to the poor. Major operations often have additional complications. Between the two, expenses can rapidly mount for the well off and their families too.

The problem is pervasive. Debt, specifically medical debt, debilitates individuals, families, employers’ workforces, and the entire population’s health. It is different from other debt because it is far less controllable and far more complex than typical consumer debt. That fact causes more stress which in turn aggravates any health conditions further. Covid made this dynamic clear, but it neither started nor ended with Covid.

“This is one of the most pernicious effects of America’s debt crisis, keeping the sick away from care and piling toxic stress on patients…the financial strain can slow patients’ recovery and even increase their chances of death…the link between sickness and debt is a defining feature of American health care…U.S. counties with the highest share of residents with multiple chronic conditions…have the most medical debt. That makes illness a stronger predictor of medical debt than either poverty or insurance.”

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