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How health concerns can lead to more medical debt


A pressing household concern

Health is a concern for all Americans regardless of age, but many lack insurance, and medical help costs are rising. Americans are struggling to keep up with their health, which has caused many to fall behind, whether that’s financially or health-wise. This burden falls heaviest on low-income people and people of color, making it a significant driver of racial disparities in health and wealth.

“One of the important things about medical debt is the impact on families. In a poll we found that 63% of people cut back on the spending on necessities like food and clothes, while another 40% have to work extra shifts to cover the cost of medical debt,” said Noam N. Levey, a senior correspondent for KFF Health News. He noted that African-Americans are 50% more likely to have medical debt. Young adults from 18-29 are twice as likely to have the same medical debt as seniors, and low-income Americans have twice the debt compared to their wealthier counterparts.

“The racial wealth gap and the racial health gap combine to create the perfect storm of debt for many Black Americans,” said Berneta L. Haynes, staff attorney at National Consumer Law Center (NCLC). “Black people are more likely to be uninsured, while more likely to experience a chronic health condition, which is why the medical debt is higher than their white counterparts. Also, the median income for the average Black household is about 45,000 while White households are at 78,000, which shows the financial gap between Black and White households.” Haynes also points out that 17% of Black adults lack health insurance compared to 12% of White adults.

Mandy Spears Pellegrin, the deputy director at Sycamore Institute, talked about how medical debt can affect a person’s behavior patterns and how they deal with stress.

“ We know that financial stability is an important factor in one’s health, but with medical debt, you often see people not only make financial sacrifices, but you start to see unhealthy coping mechanisms and habits start to develop,” Pellegrin said. “On the health behavior front, there’s a lot of research that shows financial instability can lead to stress, and it also affects the choices we make as some people may increase their alcohol consumption or become addicted to drugs.”

Pellegrin also points out that the stress from debt can also lead people to worsen their pre-existing health issues or create new ones, which increases medical debt. Levey agrees with Pellegrin and offers that people dealing with medical debt should look into different payment plans and do extensive research, as many offered by hospitals or credit companies come with high-interest rates, which will cause them to increase their debt instead of lowering it.