COVID-19 leaves wake of medical debt among U.S. adults


About one-third of U.S. adults struggled with medical debt during the pandemic, according to data from a Commonwealth Fund survey released July 16.

Despite the passage of four major relief bills in 2020 and 2021 and federal efforts to offset pandemic- and job-related coverage loss, many people continued to face financial challenges, especially those with a low income and those who are Black or Latino.

The survey, which included responses from 5,450 adults, revealed that 10% of adults aged 19-64 were uninsured during the first half of 2021, a rate lower than what was recorded in 2020 and 2019 in both federal and private surveys. However, uninsured rates were highest among those with low income, those younger than 50 years old, and Black and Latino adults.

For most adults who lost employee health insurance, the coverage gap was relatively brief, with 54% saying their coverage gap lasted 3-4 months. Only 16% of adults said coverage gaps lasted a year or longer.

“The good news is that this survey is suggesting that the coverage losses during the pandemic may have been offset by federal efforts to help people get and maintain health insurance coverage,” lead author Sara Collins, PhD, Commonwealth Fund vice president for health care coverage, access, and tracking, said in an interview.

“The bad news is that a third of Americans continue to struggle with medical bills and medical debt, even among those who have health insurance coverage,” Dr. Collins added.

Indeed, the survey found that about one-third of insured adults reported a medical bill problem or that they were paying off medical debt, as did approximately half of those who were uninsured. Medical debt caused 35% of respondents to use up most or all of their savings to pay it off.

Meanwhile, 27% of adults said medical bills left them unable to pay for necessities such as food, heat, or rent. What surprised Dr. Collins was that 43% of adults said they received a lower credit rating as a result of their medical debt, and 35% said they had taken on more credit card debt to pay off these bills.

“The fact that it’s bleeding over into people’s financial security in terms of their credit scores, I think is something that really needs to be looked at by policymakers,” Dr. Collins said.

When analyzed by race/ethnicity, the researchers found that 55% of Black adults and 44% of Latino/Hispanic adults reported medical bills and debt problems, compared with 32% of White adults. In addition, 47% of those living below the poverty line also reported problems with medical bills.

According to the survey, 45% of respondents were directly affected by the pandemic in at least one of three ways – testing positive or getting sick from COVID-19, losing income, or losing employer coverage – with Black and Latinx adults and those with lower incomes at greater risk.

George Abraham, MD, president of the American College of Physicians, said the Commonwealth Fund’s findings were not surprising because it has always been known that underrepresented populations struggle for access to care because of socioeconomic factors. He said these populations were more vulnerable in terms of more severe infections and disease burden during the pandemic.

“[This study] validates what primary care physicians have been saying all along in regard to our patients’ access to care and their ability to cover health care costs,” said Dr. Abraham, who was not involved with the study. “This will hopefully be an eye-opener and wake-up call that reiterates that we still do not have equitable access to care and vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected.”

He believes that, although people are insured, many of them may contend with medical debt when they fall ill because they can’t afford the premiums.

“Even though they may have been registered for health coverage, they may not have active coverage at the time of illness simply because they weren’t able to make their last premium payments because they’ve been down, because they lost their job, or whatever else,” Dr. Abraham explained. “On paper, they appear to have health care coverage. But in reality, clearly, that coverage does not match their needs or it’s not affordable.”

For Dr. Abraham, the study emphasizes the need to continue support for health care reform, including pricing it so that insurance is available for those with fewer socioeconomic resources.

Yalda Jabbarpour, MD, medical director of the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies, Washington, said high-deductible health plans need to be “reined in” because they can lead to greater debt, particularly among vulnerable populations.

“Hopefully this will encourage policymakers to look more closely at the problem of medical debt as a contributing factor to financial instability,” Dr. Jabbarpour said. “Federal relief is important, so is expanding access to comprehensive, affordable health care coverage.”

Dr. Collins said there should also be a way to raise awareness of the health care marketplace and coverage options so that people have an easier time getting insured.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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