New Study: Medical Bills Underlie 60 Percent of U.S. Bankruptcies

Medical bills are behind more than 60 percent of U.S. personal bankruptcies, U.S. researchers reported today. More than 75 percent of these bankrupt families had health insurance but still were overwhelmed by their medical debts, the team at Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School and Ohio University reported in the American Journal of Medicine.

Unless you’re Warren Buffett, your family is just one serious illness away from bankruptcy,” Harvard’s Dr. David Himmelstein, an advocate for a single-payer health insurance program for the United States, said in a statement.

“For middle-class Americans, health insurance offers little protection,” he added.

The researchers and some consumer advocates said the study showed the proposals under the most serious consideration are unlikely to help many Americans. They are pressing for a so-called single payer plan, in which one agency, usually the government, coordinates health coverage.

“Expanding private insurance and calling it health reform will fail to prevent financial catastrophe for hundreds of thousands of Americans every year,” Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen said in a statement.

The researchers studied 2,134 random families who filed for bankruptcy between January and April in 2007, before the current recession began.

They used public bankruptcy court records and surveyed 1,032 people by telephone.

Using a conservative definition, 62.1 percent of all bankruptcies in 2007 were medical; 92 percent of these medical debtors had medical debts over $5,000, or 10 percent of pretax family income,” the researchers wrote.

Most medical debtors were well-educated, owned homes and had middle-class occupations.”

The researchers, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the share of bankruptcies that could be blamed on medical problems rose by 50% from 2001 to 2007.

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