Collection agencies held $140 billion in unpaid medical debt in 2020, according to a study published July 20 in JAMA.
Researchers examined a nationally representative panel of consumer credit reports between January 2009 and June 2020. Below are four other notable findings from their report.
An estimated 17.8 percent of Americans owed medical debt in June 2020. The average amount owed was $429.
Over the time period studied, the amount of medical debt became progressively more concentrated in states that don’t participate in the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion program.
Between 2013 and 2020, states that expanded Medicaid in 2014 experienced a decline in the average flow of medical debt that was 34 percentage points greater than the average medical debt flow in states that didn’t expand Medicaid.
In the states that expanded Medicaid, the gap in the average medical debt flow between the lowest and highest ZIP code income levels decreased by $145, while the gap increased by $218 in states that did not expand Medicaid.
In swing states from Georgia to Arizona, the Affordable Care Act — and concerns over protecting preexisting conditions — loom over key races for Congress and the presidency.
“I can’t even believe it’s in jeopardy,” says Noshin Rafieei, a 36-year-old from Phoenix. “The people that are trying to eliminate the protection for individuals such as myself with preexisting conditions, they must not understand what it’s like.”
In 2016, Rafieei was diagnosed with colon cancer. A year later, her doctor discovered it had spread to her liver.
“I was taking oral chemo, morning and night — just imagine that’s your breakfast, essentially, and your dinner,” Rafieei says.
In February, she underwent a liver transplant.
Rafieei does have health insurance now through her employer, but she fears whether her medical history could disqualify her from getting care in the future.
“I had to pray that my insurance would approve of my transplant just in the nick of time,” she says. “I had that Stage 4 label attached to my name and that has dollar signs. Who wants to invest in someone with Stage 4?”
“That is no way to feel,” she adds.
After doing her research, Rafieei says she intends to vote for Joe Biden, who helped get the ACA passed in this first place.
“Health care for me is just the driving factor,” she says.
Even 10 years after the Affordable Care Act locked in a health care protection that Americans now overwhelmingly support — guarantees that insurers cannot deny coverage or charge more based on preexisting medical conditions — voters once again face contradicting campaign promises over which candidate will preserve the law’s legacy.
A majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans say they want their new president to preserve the ACA’s provision that protects as many as 135 million people from potentially being unable to get health care because of their medical history.
President Trump has pledged to keep this in place, even as his administration heads to the U.S Supreme Court the week after Election Day to argue the entire law should be struck down.
“We’ll always protect people with preexisting,” Trump said in the most recent debate. “I’d like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand new, beautiful health care.”
And yet the Trump administration has not unveiled a health care plan or identified any specific components it might include. In 2017, the administration joined with congressional Republicans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, but none of the GOP-backed replacement plans could summon enough votes. The Republicans’ final attempt, a limited “skinny repeal” of parts of the ACA, failed in the Senate because of resistance within their own party.
In an attempt to reassure wary voters, Trump recently signed an executive order that asserts protections for preexisting conditions will stay in place, but legal experts say this has no teeth.
“It’s basically a pinky promise, but it doesn’t have teeth,” says Swapna Reddy, a clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions. “What is the enforceability? The order really doesn’t have any effect because it can’t regulate the insurance industry.”
Since the 2017 repeal and replace efforts, the health care law has continued to gain popularity.
Public approval is now at an all-time high, but polling shows many Republicans still don’t view the ACA as synonymous with its most popular provision — protections for preexisting conditions.
Democrats hope to change that.
“If you have a preexisting condition — heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer — they are coming for you,” said Biden’s running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, during her recent debate with Vice President Pence.
Voters support maintaining ACA’s legal protections
In key swing states, many voters say protecting preexisting conditions is their top health concern.
Rafieei, the Phoenix woman with colon cancer, still often has problems getting her treatments covered. Her insurance has denied medications that help quell the painful side effects of chemotherapy or complications related to her transplant.
“During those chemo days, I’d think, wow, I’m really sick, and I just got off the phone with my pharmacy and they’re denying me something that could possibly help me,” she says.
Because of her transplant, she will be on medication for the rest of her life, and sometimes she even has nightmares about being away and running out of it.
“I will have these panic attacks like, ‘Where’s my medicine? Oh my god, I have to get back to get my medicine?'”
Election season and talk of eliminating the ACA has not given Rafieei much reassurance, though.
“I cannot stomach politics. I am beyond terrified,” she says.
And yet she plans to head to the polls — in person — despite having a compromised immune system.
“It might be a long day. But you know what? I want to fix whatever I can,” she says.
A few days after she votes, she’ll get a coronavirus test and go in for another round of surgery.
A key health issue in political swing states
Rafieei’s home state of Arizona is emblematic of the political contradictions around the health care law.
The Republican-led state reaped the benefits of the ACA. Arizona’s uninsured rate dropped considerably since 2010, in part because it expanded Medicaid.
But the state’s governor also embraced the Republican effort to repeal and replace the law in 2017, and now Arizona’s attorney general is part of the lawsuit that will be heard by the Supreme Court on Nov. 10 that could topple the entire law.
Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, ASU’s Reddy says any meaningful replacement for preexisting conditions would involve Congress and the next president.
“At the moment, we have absolutely no national replacement plan,” she says.
Meanwhile, some states have passed their own laws to maintain protections for preexisting conditions, in the event the ACA is struck down. But Reddy says those vary considerably from state to state.
For example, Arizona’s law, passed just earlier this year, only prevents insurers from outright denying coverage — consumers with preexisting conditions can be charged more.
“We are in this season of chaos around the Affordable Care Act,” says Reddy. “From a consumer perspective, it’s really hard to decipher all these details.”
As in the congressional midterm election of 2018, Democrats are hammering away at Republican’s track record on preexisting conditions and the ACA.
In Arizona, Mark Kelly, the Democratic candidate running for Senate, has run ads and used every opportunity to remind voters of Republican Sen. Martha McSally’s votes to repeal the law.
In Georgia, Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff has taken a similar approach.
“Can you look down the camera and tell the people of this state why you voted four times to allow insurance companies to deny us health care coverage because we may suffer from diabetes or heart disease or have cancer in remission?” Ossoff said during a debate with his opponent, Republican Sen. David Purdue.
Republicans have often tried to skirt health care as a major issue this election cycle because there isn’t the same political advantage to pushing the repeal and replace argument, says Mark Peterson, a professor of public policy, political science and law at UCLA.
“It’s political suicide, there doesn’t seem to be any real political advantage anymore,” says Peterson.
But the timing of the Supreme Court case — exactly a week after election day — has somewhat obscured the issue for voters.
Republicans have chipped away at the health care law by reducing the individual mandate — the provision requiring consumers to purchase insurance — to zero dollars.
The premise of the Supreme Court case is that the ACA no longer qualifies as a tax because of this change in the penalty.
“It is an extraordinary stretch, even among many conservative legal scholars, to say that the entire law is predicated on the existence of an enforced individual mandate,” says Peterson.
The court could rule in a very limited way that does not disrupt the entire law or protections for preexisting conditions, he says.
Like many issues this election, Peterson says there is a big disconnect between what voters in the two parties believe is at stake with the ACA.
“Not everybody, particularly Republicans, associates the ACA with protecting preexisting conditions,” he says. “But it is pretty striking that overwhelmingly Democrats and Independents do — and a number of Republicans — that’s enough to give a significant national supermajority.”
President Trump vowed to overhaul the health care system, notably saying in one of his first post-election speeches that pharmaceutical companies were “getting away with murder” over their pricing tactics.
Yes, but: Four years later, not a lot has changed. If anything, the health care industry has become more financially and politically powerful, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.
“Most of the bigger ideas have either been stopped in the courts or just never got implemented,” said Cynthia Cox, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation who follows the health care industry.
The administration killed its own regulationthat would have changed behind-the-scenes negotiations between drug companies and pharmacy benefit managers.
Forcing drug companies to disclose prices in TV ads was a small gambit, and the courts ultimately struck down the idea.
The other side: The policies the administration has seen through, so far, have been relatively modest.
New rules could force hospitals and health insurers to disclose their secret prices. Hospitals have sued, although the courts are not sympathetic to their pleas, and health insurers still have two years before their rule could go into effect.
Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed into law a little more than a decade ago, it has fundamentally reshaped the American healthcare system. As the graphic below highlights, the far-reaching law expanded insurance coverage, increased consumer protections, led to new payment models, established minimum coverage standards, reformed the Indian Health Service—and even gave us calorie counts on menus, among myriad other things.
The fate of the ACA is once again in the Supreme Court’s hands—and the nine Justices, now including Amy Coney Barrett, are scheduled to hear arguments starting November 10th. Eighteen states with Republican leadership are asking the court to determine whether the individual mandate is constitutional without a financial penalty, and whether the mandate is severable from the rest of the law.
The process of unwinding a law that touches nearly every facet of the US healthcare system would mean a confusing and financially detrimental road ahead for many.Although we believe it’s unlikely that the entire law will be ruled unconstitutional, if it is—and no replacement legislation is passed—the effects could be devastating.
An estimated 21 million people would be at serious risk of losing their health insurance. This risk is magnified for Hispanic and Black Americans, who are also hardest hit by COVID-19. As many as 133M people with pre-existing conditions could face insurance disqualification or significantly higher premiums.
The lost coverage would result in a significant revenue hit for doctors and hospitals. While the impact would vary by state depending on Medicaid expansion terms, an Urban Institute report projects that total uncompensated care would grow an average of 78 percent for hospitals and 68 percent for physician services if the ACA is struck down. Although the Court is not expected to rule on the fate of the law until mid-2021, the direction and pace of future health reform legislation will be set by the ruling, under either a Trump or Biden administration.
As the “third wave” of coronavirus continued to gain steam across the US this week, the nation passed another grim milestone, with more than 9M Americans now having tested positive for the virus, and the seven-day average number of new cases hitting a pandemic record of almost 72,000 new diagnoses daily. In states that we’ll surely be discussing a lot in the next week, cases were up 33 percent in Pennsylvania, 25 percent in Michigan, 23 percent in Wisconsin, 21 percent in Florida, and 16 percent in Arizona.
In a sign that the magnitude of case growth is not just an artifact of more testing, hospitalizationsfor COVID have risen 46 percent since the beginning of October, and are up 12 percent just this week. Nevertheless, as part of its “closing argument” to voters, the Trump administration this week touted “ending the COVID-19 pandemic” as one of its signature first-term accomplishments, although new polling data from Axios/Ipsos show that 62 percent of Americans believe the federal government is making the recovery worse, and 46 percent say the response has gotten worse since the first surge of cases in March and April.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the talismanic director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNBC this week that “if things do not change, if they continue on the course we’re on, there’s gonna be a whole lot of pain in this country with regard to additional cases, and hospitalizations, and deaths.”
In separate remarks, Fauci pulled back from earlier predictions for the timing of a safe and effective vaccine against the coronavirus. In comments made Thursday, he said he now expects a vaccine to be available to those in high-priority groups “by the end of December or the beginning of January.”
The CEO of drug maker Pfizer, which is among the furthest along in vaccine development, urged patience as its Phase 3 trial nears full enrollment, and researchers prepare to review and submit safety data to the Food and Drug Administration. He again assured investors that the vaccine timeline would remain apolitical, stating “This is not going to be a Republican vaccine or a Democratic vaccine. It would be a vaccine for citizens of the world.”AstraZeneca, also ahead in development of a coronavirus vaccine, reported promising results regarding immune responses among participants in its clinical trials, being conducted jointly with Oxford University.
With the Presidential election just a few days away, it remains clear that neither the virus nor the scientific community’s efforts to combat it are conforming to the best-laid plans of political leaders.
The outcome of the looming political battle, however, will surely determine the context in which the larger fight against this pandemic takes place. Again, please vote—it’s a matter of life and death.