This brief examines past-due medical debt among nonelderly adults and their families using nationally representative survey data collected in June 2022. The analysis assesses the share of adults ages 18 to 64 with past-due medical bills owed to hospitals and other health care providers as well as the actions taken by hospitals to collect payment or make bills easier to settle. It focuses on the experiences of adults with family incomes below and above 250 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), approximating the income cutoff used by many hospitals to determine eligibility for free and discounted care.
Why this matters
In their efforts to protect patients from medical debt, policymakers have increasingly focused on the role of hospital billing and collection practices, with particular scrutiny directed toward nonprofit hospitals’ provision of charity care. Understanding the experiences of people with past-due bills owed to hospitals and other providers can shed light on the potential for new consumer protections to alleviate debt burdens.
What we found
- More than one in seven nonelderly adults (15.4 percent) live in families with past-due medical debt. Nearly two-thirds of these adults have incomes below 250 percent of FPL.
- Nearly three in four adults with past-due medical debt (72.9 percent) reported owing at least some of that debt to hospitals, including 27.9 percent owing hospitals only and 45.1 percent owing both hospitals and other providers. Adults with past-due hospital bills generally have much higher total amounts of debt than those with past-due bills only owed to non-hospital providers.
- Most adults (60.9 percent) with past-due hospital bills reported that a collection agency contacted them about the debt, but much smaller shares reported that the hospital filed a lawsuit against them (5.2 percent), garnished their wages (3.9 percent), or seized funds from a bank account (1.9 percent).
- Though about one-third (35.7 percent) of adults with past-due hospital bills reported working out a payment plan, only about one-fifth (21.7 percent) received discounted care.
- Adults with incomes below 250 percent of FPL were as likely as those with higher incomes to experience hospital debt collection actions and to have received discounted care.
The concentration of past-due medical debt among families with low incomes and the large share who owe a portion of that debt to hospitals suggests that expanded access to hospital charity care and stronger consumer protections could complement health insurance coverage expansions and other efforts to mitigate the impact of unaffordable medical bills.
How we did it
This analysis draws on data from the June 2022 round of the Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey (HRMS), a nationally representative, internet-based survey of adults ages 18 to 64 that provides timely information on health insurance coverage, health care access and affordability, and other health topics. Approximately 9,500 adults participated in the June 2022 HRMS. The survey questionnaire and information about the survey design is available at https://www.urban.org/policy-centers/health-policy-center/projects/health-reform-monitoring-survey/survey-resources.