Results from a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that over four in 10 Americans have some form of medical or dental debt, reflecting the recent increase in health care spending across the country.
The KFF Health Care Debt Survey, conducted in partnership with NPR and Kaiser Health News, was meant to capture a broader image of how Americans owe money to cover medical expenses, saying such studies are “typically focused more narrowly on medical bills that people are unable to pay or those that have been sent to collections.”
The KFF survey looked at different kinds of debt that might not typically be associated with medical costs, including whether individuals had medical or dental bills past due, bills they were paying off over time, debt they owed to a bank or other lender for medical bill, bills they have put on a credit card and are still paying off or any debt owed to family members or friends to pay medical or dental expenses.
A cumulative 41% of U.S. adults said yes to one or more of those categories, according to Kaiser’s survey. Another 14% of adults said they had medical or dental debt within the past five years that has since been paid off, meaning “most adults (57%) have experienced owing money due to medical or dental bills at some point in the past five years,” researchers wrote in part.
There are stark differences in which demographics owe medical debt when further broken down, according to the KFF survey; those without a college degree are more likely to report debt from medical or dental bills compared to college graduates at 47% and 31%, respectively.
Differences also appear between gender, race and ethnicity, as 48% of women said they had some form of medical or dental debt compared to 34% of men. Black and Hispanic adults were more likely than their white counterparts to report medical debt, at 56% and 50% compared to 37%.
Medical debt has long been a problem impacting millions of Americans. A separate study from KFF, published in March, found that around 23 million people – or nearly one in 10 U.S. adults – owed $250 or more for health-related costs, defined as “significant medical debt,” by the organization.
Around 16 million individuals owed at least $1,000 in medical debts, per KFF, with another 3 million people owing upwards of $10,000. But again, the debt was not spread equally amongst all demographics, as Black Americans were “far more likely than people of other racial and ethnic groups to report significant medical debt.”
Recent analyses estimate the total burden of medical debt in the United States hovers around $195 billion.
The Biden administration has taken some steps to reduce the burden of medical debt on Americans.
In April, the White House announced series of reforms focusing on four key areas: holding health care providers and debt collectors accountable, improving the federal government’s underwriting practices for those with medical debt, supporting veterans struggling with medical debt or other health-related hardships and helping American consumers know and understand their rights when it comes to medical care.
In order to hold companies accountable, the Department of Health and Human Services requested data from over 2,000 providers to evaluate information on collection practices, lawsuits, financial assistance, debt buying practices and other factors that might “impact access and affordability of care and the accrual of medical debt,” per the White House.
The administration also announced taking steps to ensure that the credit scores of individuals with medical debt do not suffer, building off of a private-sector announcement in mid-March from the country’s three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — that they would remove nearly 70% of medical collection debt from consumer credit reports.
Starting July 1, paid medical debt will no longer be included on credit reports. Currently, it can remain on reports up to seven years, even after being paid off.
The agencies also are extending the time period from six months to a year before unpaid debt appears on credit reports, giving people more time to work with insurance companies or health care providers to resolve the debt.
And in the first half of 2023, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion will stop including medical debt under $500 on credit reports.