Medical debt and personal bankruptcy

How the Affordable Care Act Drove Down Personal Bankruptcy

By Allen St. John
Consumer Reports, May 2, 2017



By Don McCanne, M.D.

It is reassuring to learn that personal bankruptcies are declining, but we should not extrapolate the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act is responsible for largely eliminating the problem of medical debt. It is still very much with us.

In 2016, about 43.8 million Americans had problems paying medical bills in the past 12 months. A Consumer Reports survey in January of this year revealed that “55 percent of consumers said they lacked confidence that they or their loved ones would be able to afford insurance to secure that care.” Affordability of health insurance and health care remains a major problem in the United States.

It is likely that the expansion of Medicaid and the introduction of generous subsidies for low-income individuals reduced the rate of medical debt amongst the 20 million people who gained coverage under ACA, but the reduction in the rate of personal bankruptcy for the other 300 million Americans was more likely due to a combination of an improved economy and the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 which made it much more difficult to file for personal bankruptcy. (The albatross of life-long debt is another story.)

When over half of Americans lack confidence that they can afford health insurance and almost 44 million are already having difficulties paying their medical bills, we have a problem. It could be virtually eliminated by enacting a well designed single payer national health program - an improved Medicare for all - that automatically includes everyone while removing financial barriers to care. Celebrating ACA is not enough.