62% of bankruptcies from medical bills?

Will you be one of 2.4 million Americans bankrupted each year by medical bills?

March 11, 2010

As politicians go round and round talking about how health reform legislation will increase or decrease the deficit, or how a win on this bill will help or hurt Democrats, I think it’s worth mentioning again that there’s one really huge number that matters: 62.

Sixty-two is the the percentage of U.S. personal bankruptcies in which medical bills were a leading contributor, according to Dr. David Himmelstein, who wrote two major studies on the topic. And 62 is a scarily high number, but even scarier when you consider that 62 percent of total bankruptcy filings works out to about 900,000 cases and – with each case affecting about 2.7 people – in total, about 2.4 million people who would be affected.

We could talk about how these 2.4 million folks – who have had their legs kicked out from beneath them – then become an additional burden on the system. But I think it’s worth spending a little more time thinking about what that means to those affected families.

As Himmelstein points out in this article, those people suffer long-lasting effects, not the least of which is shame that they’ve been bankrupted. They continue to have trouble getting medical care, but they’re also skipping meals, seeing their utilities shut off, and they’re losing their homes. Life that’s already hellish because of medical bills becomes even more hellish.

Well-educated, middle-class, home-owning Americans who already have insurance may view these numbers with concern – and well they should. A clinical research study of medical bankruptcy by research at Harvard Medical School, Ohio University and Harvard Law School found that

Our takeaways?

  • It’s not enough to just extend coverage to more Americans, as promised by legislation currently being considered by Congress. Health reform needs to promise standards for health plans – standards that could be set through the establishment of a health insurance exchange system.


  • Having coverage now is not a guarantee of security tomorrow, or next year, or in five years. Skyrocketing premiums mean that your ability to pay for coverage now doesn’t mean you’re safe down the line.


Tags: bankruptcy, health care debate, health care nightmares, insurance exchange, insurance industry, medical bankruptcy, uninsured

About Steve Anderson

Steve Anderson

Steve Anderson is editor and content manager for healthinsurance.org, where he works with a talented team of health policy writers. Anderson is a writer and editor with two decades of communications experience that includes previous lives in print journalism, corporate communications, and public affairs.

All authors

Visit the authors page and find out who is behind all of the great content at healthinsurance.org™.

Latest Obamacare news & opinion

Moral Mondays

Pre-Occupied with Medicaid expansion

Moral Mondays focuses on concrete, politically actionable grievances. Punitive voter ID…

Obamacare open enrollment window

Fixing Obamacare’s broken window

Spreading out open enrollment would allow carriers and exchanges to maintain level…


The dental crisis that’s driving patients away

When increasing numbers of Americans cross the Mexican border to see a dentist ... you…


Health Wonk Review for April 10, 2014

Billy Wynne put together a great edition of Health Wonk Review over at Healthcare…

exchanges too big to succeed

Exchanges: too big to succeed?

This is the time for brainstorming, but how much are we willing to change? Could we…

Republican policy fail ACA

Will there be an ‘exodus’ to the exchanges?

Harold: Now, would you be happy or sad if there was this exodus to the exchanges? Jon: I…

uninformed Florida Obamacare

Can Obamacare work even better?

I think the average American voter is actually a charitable person, a big-hearted person.…


Reports of ACA demise: greatly exaggerated

For this edition of Curbside Consult, I Skyped with Dr. Jonathan Gruber, who is the Ford…

repeal Obamacare 2014

Obamacare: Irreplaceable, irrepealable

If you support the Affordable Care Act, know that your work is not yet done. And if you…

all posts

See all 366 blog posts.

Browse by date

Search within posts

Related terms

insurance exchange

A health insurance exchange – also known as a health insurance marketplace – is a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, established to…

Recent tweets @EyeOnInsurance

Thu Apr 24 20:26 2014 • reply • retweet • favorite

Thu Apr 24 18:10 2014 • reply • retweet • favorite

Thu Apr 24 18:02 2014 • reply • retweet • favorite