Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Dear Common Dreams Readers:
Corporations and billionaires have their own media. Shouldn't we? When you “follow the money” that funds our independent journalism, it all leads back to this: people like you. Our supporters are what allows us to produce journalism in the public interest that is beholden only to people, our planet, and the common good. Please support our Mid-Year Campaign so that we always have a newsroom for the people that is funded by the people. Thank you for your support. --Jon Queally, managing editor

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

A medical bill shows a health insurance claim

A health insurance claim form is seen on a medical bill. (Photo: Getty Images)

'Barbaric' System Saddles Over 100 Million in US With Healthcare Debt

"Debt is no longer just a bug in our system," said one physician in response to a new investigation. "It is one of the main products."

Jake Johnson

An investigation published Thursday reveals that healthcare debt is "far more pervasive" in the United States than previously known, currently impacting 41% of U.S. adults and more than 100 million people across the country.

"We've built a healthcare system that is more effective at extracting money from people than caring for them."

Previous attempts to assess the extent of the medical debt crisis have understated the problem because, according to a joint study by Kaiser Health News and NPR, "much of the debt that patients accrue is hidden as credit card balances, loans from family, or payment plans to hospitals and other medical providers."

In an effort to more accurately estimate how much of the U.S. population is facing healthcare debt—a largely foreign concept to people in countries with universal coverage systems that restrict out-of-pocket costs—the two outlets conducted a new survey "designed to capture not just bills patients couldn't afford, but other borrowing used to pay for healthcare as well."

The results, combined with new analyses of hospital billing and credit card data, show that more than half of U.S. adults report going into debt because of medical or dental bills over the past five years.

"More than 100 million people in America―including 41% of adults―beset by a healthcare system that is systematically pushing patients into debt on a mass scale," the investigation found. "A quarter of adults with healthcare debt owe more than $5,000. And about one in five with any amount of debt said they don't expect to ever pay it off."

Dr. Rishi Manchanda, the CEO of Health Begins, told KHN that "debt is no longer just a bug in our system."

"It is one of the main products," Manchanda added. "We have a health care system almost perfectly designed to create debt."

KHN and NPR's new survey also shows that around one in seven people with healthcare debt in the U.S. say they have been denied access to a hospital or another provider because of unpaid bills and two-thirds have forgone care because of the cost. Respondents also reported cutting back on food, moving out of their homes, and declaring bankruptcy because of healthcare debt.

"Now, a highly lucrative industry is capitalizing on patients' inability to pay," KHN reported. "Hospitals and other medical providers are pushing millions into credit cards and other loans. These stick patients with high interest rates while generating profits for the lenders that top 29%, according to research firm IBISWorld."

"Patient debt is also sustaining a shadowy collections business fed by hospitals―including public university systems and nonprofits granted tax breaks to serve their communities―that sell debt in private deals to collections companies that, in turn, pursue patients," the outlet noted.

A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that people in the U.S. now owe collection agencies a staggering $140 billion due to unpaid medical bills, a major increase from prior estimates of around $81 billion.

"It's barbaric," lamented Dr. Miriam Atkins, a Georgia oncologist who told KHN that she has had patients stop their treatment due to fear of racking up massive debt.

In April, the Biden administration announced several initiatives aimed at providing relief to millions of people harmed by healthcare debt. The actions included a push to eliminate medical debt as a factor in determining eligibility for credit and debt forgiveness for "low-income American veterans."

But the administration's moves are unlikely to have much impact on the nation's overall medical debt crisis.

In 2019, as part of his presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed wiping out all U.S. medical debt, calling it "immoral and unconscionable." But the senator's proposal has not gained any traction in Congress.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

'Morally Bankrupt' G7 Slammed for 'Caving' to Fossil Fuel Lobby on Climate

"People in poverty around the world will pay the highest price for this backtrack by some of the wealthiest countries," one activist warned of the group's new statement on gas investments.

Jessica Corbett ·

'Yeah, And?': Ocasio-Cortez Embraces GOP Freakout Over Helping Women Skirt Abortion Bans

"Republicans are mad because I am sharing this information," said Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. "Too bad!"

Julia Conley ·

WATCH LIVE: Top Meadows Aide Cassidy Hutchinson Testifies at Surprise Jan. 6 Hearing

Hutchinson, who has spent more than 20 hours in deposition with the House panel, is expected to provide more damning evidence of the role that Meadows played in Trump's coup attempt.

Kenny Stancil ·

Oxfam Condemns G7 for Leaving 'Millions to Starve' as Global Hunger Surges

"Faced with the worst hunger crisis in a generation, the G7 have simply failed to take the action that is needed," said Max Lawson of Oxfam International.

Jake Johnson ·

'Horrific': 50 Migrants Found Dead in Abandoned Trailer Truck in Texas

"We need to end Title 42 and fix our broken immigration system so these unimaginable tragedies stop happening," said Rep. Chuy García. "People fleeing violence and poverty deserve a chance at a better life."

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo