Credit cards, mortgages and hefty auto loans are all debt problems in America, but the single biggest offender putting people in the red is the healthcare industry. Medical debt is the number one reason Americans file for bankruptcy. An astonishing number of people struggle to pay off their medical bills and often have to go into debt elsewhere because of them. Hefty medical bills could mean you have to take out a personal loan just to pay your rent, for example. But while the pervasiveness of medical debt in the United States is well-known, it is surprising just how the numbers actually shake out. Americans aren’t just in medical debt, we’re drowning in it.
1. Medical insurance will make or break you
Health insurance coverage directly correlates with the percentage of Americans in debt. This in and of itself is not surprising, but what is astonishing is just how severe the connection is. The Urban institute has found that just a one percent increase in uninsured Americans can drive the amount of debt in collections up by 1.3 percent. This uneven ratio leads the average medical debt to increase exponentially compared to uninsurance rates.
2. The South is hit the worst
Economic and demographic influences make a huge difference in the average debt an area suffers from. In the United States, southern states appear to be saddled with the most medical debts. While 1 in 5 Americans carries past due medical debts, southern states like Louisiana and Texas boast a much higher percentage, nearly 3 in 5.
3. The Midwest carries the least debt
Minnesota boasts the lowest debt rates in the country with less than 17 percent of adults having outstanding debts in collections. Differences in health insurance coverage has been linked to these huge variances in regional indebtedness. Areas with higher levels of coverage see a lower level of debt in general, not just medical debt. This seems to create something of a cycle, where those most in need of medical insurance are those unable to afford it.
4. The median debt is 1,500 dollars
The median amount of past due debts in the United States is well over the 1,000 dollar mark. This means that half of debtors owe less, and half owe more. Medical debts in isolation carry a median amount of just under 700 dollars.
5. This medical debt has little payoff
Medical bills are considered by most people to be unavoidable. Being in medical debt is rarely the fault of poor planning or laziness. It is an unfortunate situation that strikes some people but not others, depending on circumstance and pre-existing health issues. But all these high costs don’t seem to be paying off for Americans, who pay the most in health care yet can expect shorter lifespans when compared with other developed nations. It’s the apparent needlessness of these millions of dollars of medical debt that give these statistics their frustrating bite. So many people are drowning in unavoidable debt while reaping no visible benefits.
Debt versus collections
Measuring the prevalence of debt in the United States and trying to quantify how shocking it is can be tricky sometimes. You’d be hard pressed to find many adults without some debt in the form of a mortgage or an auto loan. These are normal aspects of life that most everyone can count on dealing with for at least a few years. However, by some standards an otherwise financially healthy individual is “in debt” if they do not yet own their home outright. This is why many institutions choose to look at past-due debts and measure only the debt that has gone into collections. This provides a much clearer look of just how many people are actually struggling to make ends meet. Because medical debts are unsecured, meaning they hold no collateral, they are often one of the first debts people miss payments on.
Looking at the numbers and factoring in only past due debts leads to smaller percentages. For example, considering debt that is not in collections leads to nearly 80 percent off all Americans being in debt. But if we consider just those who have debt in collections, as we have here, then we get a better picture of just how many people are truly struggling with debt, and the numbers are not comforting.
Medical debts are the most frightening kind, because they cannot be easily avoided. The best you can do is assume that a medical emergency will strike eventually, and save money as best you can with that in mind. And if medical insurance is at all within your reach, do not rest until you have gotten yourself enrolled.
Christine Yaged is a co-founding partner and Chief Product Officer of FinanceBuzz. Christine launches and scales brands. She is passionate about technology, digital marketing, and people.