Fewer Families in U.S. Say Struggling to Pay Medical Bill

Fewer families are struggling to pay their medical bills, according to a report that suggests the cost of health-care may be starting to slow.

About 20 percent of people under 65 reported being in a family that was having problems paying for medical bills in the first six months of 2012, according to a survey by the National Center for Health Statistics. That’s a decrease from about 22 percent in the same period a year earlier, a drop of about 3.6 million people, the report found.

Health-care costs have eased because of increased use of cheaper generic drugs, more efficient care from hospitals and people putting off procedures during the economic downturn, said Peter Cunningham, a senior fellow at the Center for Studying Health System Change. Though the drop in people struggling to pay medical bills isn’t related to the health-care law, the trend may continue when insurance coverage is expanded starting in 2014, he said.

“Based on the earlier trends we’ve noted, this really isn’t a surprise and it coincides with moderating health-care costs,” Cunningham said. “People just started pulling back on what they are using and spending in terms of health care, which isn’t too dissimilar to what we’ve seen in other sectors of the economy.”

Among those who reported problems, 36 percent were uninsured, while 14 percent had private insurance and 26 percent had government-funded coverage, such as Medicare or Medicaid, the survey found. Fewer Americans with private and public insurance reported having trouble with medical bills in the first six months of 2012 than a year earlier. There was no change among those without insurance.

‘Near Poor’

Those described as “near poor,” who may not qualify for Medicaid in some states, were the most likely to have been struggling with bills. The survey didn’t ask people why they were having problems or what they were doing to address them, said Robin Cohen, an author of the report and a researcher with the division of health interview statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics.

“I would expect that with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act that you should see some decrease for the poor and near poor in terms of affordability,” Cunningham said. “Affordability of health care is still a pretty substantial problem.”

The National Center for Health Statistics has been tracking data on difficulty with medical bills since 2011. The findings were based on data from 155,321 people who completed the National Health Interview Survey.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.