Part of the reason why medical debt is so high is because many Americans don’t have enough savings to pay their deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs, according to a second KFF analysis.
Driving the news: Health insurance plans’ out-of-pocket limits prevent enrollees from paying limitless sums of money for medical care. But that doesn’t mean they protect people from having to pay several thousands of dollars — which not everyone has lying around.
Deductibles alone, which people must pay before coverage for most services kicks in, are frequently thousands of dollars and can exceed the amount of liquid assets a household has.
By the numbers: Over 40% of multi-person households can’t cover a mid-range employer family plan deductible of $4,000, and 61% don’t have enough to cover a high-range deductible.
The ability to pay out-of-pocket costs varies significantly by income.
Job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic are the highest since the Great Depression. A year and a half later, most Americans who lost their health insurance along with their job remain uninsured.
Most Americans who lost their jobs and health insurance more than a year ago remain uninsured.
Over 1,200 Americans who are still unemployed due to COVID-19 were surveyed by AffordableHealthInsurance.com. At least four out of five in all participants don’t have insurance coverage.
To be exact, 56% of Americans who remain unemployed since being laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic lost their health insurance along with their job. In addition, 23% of workers did not have employer-provided health insurance prior to losing their jobs.
Even before the pandemic, small businesses struggled to absorb the cost of providing health insurance to their employees, said health insurance advisor and nursing consultant Tammy Burns in the Affordable Health Insurance study.
“Companies have cut costs by going with high-deductible plans and sharing less of the cost towards the insurance,” Burns said. “This makes it cheaper for employees to get their own health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace. At larger companies, health care costs are growing faster than worker wages, so a large amount of an employee’s check goes to insurance. Therefore, many workers opt out because they can’t afford it.”
Majority of Those Who Lost Health Insurance Still Lack Coverage
Of the 56% of unemployed Americans who lost their health insurance along with their job, 81% are still uninsured.
This lack of coverage is impacting certain groups more than others. There are also several contributing factors to why the number of unemployed Americans without health insurance remains high.
These factors are:
Men more likely to remain uninsured than women
When broken down by gender, men are more likely than women to have lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs at 66% and 44%, respectively. However, women are twice as likely as men to have not had health insurance in the first place at 31% and 16%, respectively.
Currently, men are slightly more likely to still be uninsured. Eighty-four percent of male survey respondents do not currently have health insurance, compared to 75% of women.
Majority of unemployed Millennials, Gen Xers still uninsured
Our survey also found that certain age groups are more likely than others to still be uninsured after a pandemic-related job loss.
Eighty-six percent of individuals ages 35 to 44, and 84% of both 25 to 34 year-olds and 45 to 54 year-olds remain without health insurance after being laid off. Comparatively, 67% of unemployed individuals 18 to 24, and 58% of those older than 55 are still uninsured.
Americans ages 25 to 44 are also the age group most likely to have lost their health insurance when they were let go from their jobs (66%).
Inability to Afford Private Insurance The Top Reason to Remain Uninsured
The high cost of individual insurance is the number one reason Americans still unemployed from the pandemic remain uninsured.
Sixty-seven percent of those uninsured can’t afford private health insurance. Eleven percent of people who still lack health insurance say they did not qualify for government-funded health insurance, despite the fact that a number of states expanded access to Medicaid during the pandemic.
A lack of understanding about how the ACA marketplace works may also play a role in why uninsured Americans are not pursuing all possible avenues to get health insurance.
“People are scared of the ACA because it involves a lot of personal information, like taxes,” Burns said. “I have found that many people are afraid it is ‘the government being in my business.’ There is a lack of knowledge about how helpful and affordable the ACA is now. There needs to be better education about this program.”
One in five uninsured Americans choose not to have health insurance
The survey also found 20% of unemployed Americans who are uninsured choose to forgo health insurance altogether.
This is particularly true for men, 22% of whom are choosing not to have health insurance, compared to 15% of women.
Younger adults are also more likely than older Americans to opt out of health insurance if they are unemployed. Twenty-five percent of 25 to 34 year-olds, and 20% of 25 to 34 year-olds choose not to have health insurance.
Medication, Routine Checkups Skipped Due to Lack of Insurance
A lack of insurance has serious short- and long-term implications for individuals’ health and well-being. The biggest impact: 58% of uninsured individuals are no longer getting routine care, which could hinder their ability to identify more serious underlying issues.
Other impacts include no longer taking doctor-prescribed medication (56%); delaying planned medical procedures (46%); not seeking treatment for chronic issues (44%), and no longer receiving mental health treatment (41%).
Three-quarters of older Americans not getting regular check-ups
Our survey also found that those at greater risk for medical issues, based on age, are the most likely to be skipping their routine check-ups. Three-fourths of uninsured individuals over the age of 55 (76%) say they are not going for regular doctor visits because of their lack of insurance, the highest percentage of any age group.
Meanwhile, 64% of individuals 35 to 44 are not taking doctor-prescribed medication, which can have both short- and long-term negative effects.
Majority of Uninsured Americans “Very likely” to be Financially Devastated by Medical Emergency
Given that so many individuals are already hard-pressed to afford health insurance, it’s not surprising that many of them will also be in a dangerous place financially if there is a medical emergency.
Fifty-nine percent of uninsured people are “very likely” to be financially devastated by a medical emergency, while another quarter are “somewhat likely” to face financial ruin in the event of a medical emergency.
Zoom in: Cindy Beckwith, 57, of Bolton, Connecticut, was diagnosed with pulmonary artery sarcoma, a rare tumor on a main artery. She also has fibromuscular dysplasia, a rare blood vessel condition.
She has ConnectiCare health insurance, which she gets through her husband’s employer.
Her local doctors suggested she see specialists at the University of Pennsylvania Health System because her conditions were so uncommon, but the system was out-of-network.
“I had to go out of my network,” Beckwith said. “I didn’t have a choice.”
The bill: $20,138.40 from Penn Medicine, the parent of UPHS, a profitable system with $8.7 billion of revenue last year.
Over a few years, Beckwith received a lot of care from the hospital, including two open-heart surgeries and inpatient chemotherapy.
This bill showed charges of $270,000, just for services received in 2019. Beckwith and the hospital settled on $20,138.40. Penn Medicine “insisted” she pay a minimum of $441 per month until 2023, she said.
Beckwith and her husband have already paid more than $11,000, and even though she says they are doing OK with her various medical bills, “there’s not a lot of extra money left over.”
Between the lines: The new surprise billing regulation only protects patients if they get non-emergency care from out-of-network doctors at in-network facilities.
That means people with employer coverage that doesn’t have an out-of-pocket maximum for out-of-network care could experience large bills based on hospitals’ inflated charges, and have to negotiate payment on their own.
“Out-of-network charges kind of seem like a little bit of funny money to consumers,” said Katherine Hempstead, a health insurance expert at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “These are the things that make people feel kind of defeated.”
“We didn’t expect this to happen,” said Beckwith, who has worked in medical coding for 30 years, said of her condition. “When it does, it can wipe you out.”
The other side: Beckwith’s hospital and insurance providers did not make anyone available for interviews.
A ConnectiCare spokesperson said the insurer does “not speak about our members’ private health information.”
A Penn Medicine spokesperson said in a statement the system “has a longstanding commitment to work with patients to help them understand the costs associated with their care, including out-of-pocket costs.”
The resolution: After Axios submitted a HIPAA authorization waiver, signed by Beckwith, to Penn Medicine to discuss Beckwith’s case, Beckwith received a call from Penn Medicine, whom she hadn’t heard from in months.
The hospital knocked $4,000 off her remaining balance, telling her they reprocessed some old claims. She still owes almost $4,800.
Here in Washington, the conversation about politics is often framed as a spectrum, a straight line with poles at the end that are hard-wired opposites. Team Blue to the left and Team Red to the right. But in reality, the chatter might more accurately be framed as a loop, with the far ends bending back on themselves like a lasso. Eventually, the far-right voices and the far-left voices meet at the weird spot where Rand Paul supporters find common ground with The Squad.
It’s often at the knot between the two ends of that scale that we find some of the loudest voices on any given issue: foreign aid, vaccine mandates, the surveillance state. Right now, as Congress is considering a massive spending package on roads and bridges, pre-K and paid family leave, lawmakers have been debating a point on which political opponents agree: drug prices are too high.
Drug pricing is one of those rare sweet spots where it seems everyone in Washington can agree that consumers are getting a raw deal. The motives behind that sentiment differ, of course: liberals want to make medical care more accessible and to curb the power of big pharma, and conservatives see drug prices divorced from pure capitalism. But everyone can rally around the end goal. No one gets excited to tuck away pennies on the paycheck to control acid reflux or prevent migraines.
The package under consideration tries to fix drug costs by ending the ban on feds negotiating with pharmaceutical companies. In a deal hashed out among Democrats, Medicare would be allowed to negotiate directly with drug companies on the prices of the 10 most expensive drugs by 2025. That number would double to 20 drugs three years later. Only established drugs that have been on the market at least nine years in most cases would be eligible, giving pharmaceutical companies almost a decade of unrestricted profitability. (Start-up biotech companies would be exempted from the process under the guise of giving newcomer innovators a leg-up.)
For individuals on private insurance, their drug costs would be tied to inflation, meaning no spiking costs if a drug becomes popular. Seniors, meanwhile, would have a $2,000 cap on what they’d be responsible for at the pharmacy.
Democrats have been working for years to make drug companies the enemy. In the current environment of woke capitalism, they’re an easy target for lawmakers in Washington to come after. Drugs, after all, aren’t luxury goods. They’re necessary. And for the government to give them a pass in ways few other industries enjoy, that just seems wrong to the far-left wing of the Democratic Party that has flirted with elements of socialism.
It turns out, maybe that messaging isn’t working. New polling, provided exclusively to TIME from centrist think tank Third Way, suggests the way the conversation is framed matters more than you’d think. In a poll of 1,000 likely voters in September, costs were their biggest hangup about the healthcare system, regardless of political identity. Almost 40% of respondents cited healthcare costs as the biggest flaw in the system.
What didn’t seem to bother people much? Fairness. That’s right. The spot where the far-right and the far-left tines of the political fork meet is usually seen as an objection to a system rigged against the consumers. But a meager 18% of respondents to the Third Way poll say profits were what’s wrong with the system. Grievance isn’t the most grievous of problems.
And if you dig a little deeper, you find other reasons Democrats might want to reconsider how they talk about drug prices in the twin infrastructure plans parked in Congress. In fact, there’s a 12-point gap in two competing reasons to address healthcare; lowering costs draws the support of 72% of respondents while making things fair wins backing from 60%.
“This is kitchen table economics and it’s not a morality play,” says Jim Kessler, a co-founder of Third Way and its policy chief who is advising the Hill on messaging on the twin bills. “Those are winning messages, especially on healthcare. You’re going to keep the exact same system, but you’re going to get some help with costs.”
In other words, the chatter in the purple knot might feel most fulsome when talking about justice and weeding out the super-rich exploiters of capitalism. But, really, people just want to hold onto their cash. Protections against healthcare bankruptcy are super popular, suggesting the fear of losing everything to a hospital visit is real. Capitalism may well be exploitative but it’s tough to argue that a few extra bucks in the bank can make falling asleep easier at the end of the day.
So as Congress gets ready to move forward with drug prices in its infrastructure talks, lawmakers can find some comfort that the whole of the political spectrum agrees costs need to come down. And they don’t really care if it’s done in a fair way — as long as their savings doesn’t take a hit every 90 days.
Contrary to what health care executives advertise, hospital mergers and acquisitions aren’t good for patients. They rarely improve access to health care or its quality, and they don’t reduce prices. But the system in place to stop them is often more bark than bite.
In 2018, the last year for which complete data are available, 72% of hospitals and more than 90% of hospital beds were affiliated with a health care system. Mergers and acquisitions are increasing the number of health care systems while decreasing the number of independently operated hospitals.
When hospitals buy provider practices, it leads to more unnecessary care and more expensive care, which increases overall spending. The same thing happens when hospitals merge or acquire other hospitals. These deals often increase prices and they don’t improve care quality; patients simply pay more for the same or worse care.
Mergers and acquisitions can negatively affect clinician morale as well. Some argue they lead to providers’ loss of autonomy and increase the emphasis on financial targets rather than patient care. They can also contribute to burnout and feeling unsupported.
Considerable machinery is in place at both the federal and state levels to stop “anticompetitive” mergers before they happen. But that machinery is limited by a lack of follow through.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice have always had broad authority over mergers. By law, one or both of these entities must review for any antitrust concerns proposed deals of a certain size before the deals are finalized. After a preliminary review, if no competition issues are identified, the merger or acquisition is allowed to proceed. This is what happens in most cases. If concerns are raised, however, the involved parties must submit additional information and undergo a second evaluation.
Some health care organizations seem willing to challenge this process. Leaders involved in a pending merger between Lifespan and Care New England in Rhode Island — which would leave 80% of the state’s inpatient market under one company’s umbrella — are preparing to move forward even if the FTC deems the deal anticompetitive. The companies will simply ask the state to approve the merger despite the FTC’s concerns.
The reality is that the FTC’s reach is limited when it comes to nonprofits, which most hospitals are. While the FTC can oppose anticompetitive mergers involving nonprofits, it cannot enforce action against them for anticompetitive behavior. So if a merger goes through, the FTC has limited authority to ensure the new entity plays fairly.
What’s more, the FTC has acknowledged it can’t keep up with its workload this year. It modified its antitrust review process to accommodate an increasing number of requests and its stagnant capacity. In July, the Biden administration issued an executive order about economic competition that explicitly acknowledges the negative impact of health care consolidation on U.S. communities. This is encouraging, signaling that the government is taking mergers seriously. Yet it’s unclear if the executive order will give the FTC more capacity, which is essential if it is to actually enforce antitrust laws.
At the state level, most of the antitrust power lies with the attorney general, who ultimately approves or challenges all mergers. Despite this authority, questionable mergers still go through.
In 2018, for example, two competing hospital systems in rural Tennessee merged to become Ballad Health and the only source of care for about 1.2 million residents. The deal was opposed by the FTC, which deemed it to be a monopoly. Despite the concerns, the state attorney general and Department of Health overrode the FTC’s ruling and approved the merger. (This is the same mechanism the Rhode Island hospitals hope to employ should the FTC oppose their merger.) As expected, Ballad Health then consolidated the services offered at its facilities and increased the fees on patient bills.
It’s clear that mechanisms exist to curb potentially harmful mergers and promote industry competition. It’s also clear they aren’t being used to the fullest extent. Unless these checks and balances lead to mergers being denied, their power over the market is limited.
Experts have been raising the alarm on health care consolidation for years. Mergers rarely lead to better care quality, access, or prices. Proposed mergers must be assessed and approved based on evidence, not industry pressure. If nothing changes, the consequences will be felt for years to come.
Medical debt can be a crushing burden for families, and it is a major problem in the United States. The nonprofit RIP Medical Debt says it’s wiped out debt for 2.7 million patients since 2014, totalling more than $4.5 billion. One of the most famous health policy studies ever conducted — the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment — found that having Medicaid coverage reduced a person’s likelihood of having an unpaid medical bill sent to collection by 25%. Now a study published last month in JAMA offers new evidence on the relationship between Medicaid and medical debt, and the scale of the country’s medical debt problem.
Using a subset of credit reports from one major U.S. credit agency for every year between 2009 and 2020, researchers Raymond Kluender, Neale Mahoney, Francis Wong and Wesley Yin looked at the total amount of medical debt and new medical debt each year. They found that while both measures of medical debt have decreased almost every year since 2014, nearly 1 in 5 Americans were under collections for medical debt as of early 2020. They also found that since 2014, medical debt has been the largest source of debt for Americans, surpassing all other types of debt — credit cards, personal loans, utilities and phone bills — combined. And the medical debt was not evenly distributed around the country. Approximately, 1 in 4 individuals in the South were under collection for medical debt in 2020, but only 1 in 10 in the Northeast.
To assess the impact of Medicaid coverage on medical debt, Kluender and colleagues compared the total amount of new debt accrued by people living in states that expanded Medicaid and those that have not between 2009 and 2020, allowing them to confirm that any trends they identified didn’t pre-date Medicaid expansion in 2014. They found that between 2013 and 2020 the average amount of new medical debt decreased 34 percentage points more in states that expanded in 2014 compared to non-expansion states, and the drops were most prominent in the lowest income zip codes. The analysis can’t prove a causal relationship between medical debt and Medicaid expansion, but interestingly, the authors found no statistically significant difference in nonmedical debt between expansion and non-expansion states. This lack of an effect on nonmedical debt supports the association between Medicaid and reductions in medical debt.
The article does have limitations: It doesn’t include debts paid on a credit card or through payment plans; it doesn’t reflect the impact of COVID-19; and it can’t account for unobservable changes in policy or circumstance that might have coincided with Medicaid expansion and impacted medical debt. But it does add evidence to support the value of Medicaid coverage — a particularly timely finding, with more than 11 million people joining Medicaid since the start of the pandemic and Democrats in Congress looking to cover the more than 2 million people in the so-called coverage gap in the 12 non-expansion states.