Unpaid medical debt reaches unimaginable high

Reporter: Anika Henanger Writer: Jackie Winchester
A new study shows unpaid medical debt in the U.S. has reached $140 billion. (Credit: WINK News)

Anyone who has seen a doctor lately knows just how costly care can be. Unpaid medical debt is now unimaginable, reaching into the hundreds of billions.

A newly published study shows people in the South have the most trouble paying up.

Nearly 20% of people have a medical debt of around $400, and that debt has been owed long enough to impact their credit.

You know medical debt can get bad. We’ve brought you stories for years about the pain of trying to pay.

“I didn’t choose to be sick, but here I am, trying to keep a job, and when I do work, it’s to pay off medical bills.”

“Something I really don’t like is uncertainty. Living with it 24/7. The idea that I don’t know when this is going to end.”

“They don’t stop. Nine, 10 o’clock some nights, debt collectors.”

“Our deductibles went up every year. Our premiums would go up 200, 300 dollars every year.”

Medical debt is much higher than originally thought. Americans owe $140 billion in unpaid medical bills that have been turned over to collection agencies.

“If you’re getting a phone call or a debt collector knocking on your door, more often than not now, it’s because of an unpaid medical bill,” said Neale Mahoney, a professor of economics at Stanford University.

He crunched the numbers and knows what they mean.

“What we found is that medical debt levels are about three times higher in the Deep South in the United States than in other regions,” he said.

There, the average amount of unpaid medical debt listed on a credit report is a whopping $677. If you live in the Northeast, it’s $167.

While Florida doesn’t participate in the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid Expansion Program, Mahoney said it doesn’t hurt as much as other states.

“Florida has, obviously, a large, over-65 population that has great health insurance coverage through Medicare or through a private Medicare Advantage plan. So medical debt levels are lower in Florida than in other nearby states,” Mahoney said.

What’s not comforting is the data doesn’t include all the costs since COVID-19 hit.

“My fear is that households who’ve had to deal with a loved one in a hospital, maybe in an ICU on a ventilator, are now going to have to deal with additional burden and stress from large medical bills. And so I am I’m scared to look at that data.”

One thing to know: medical debt doesn’t affect your credit score unless it’s reported to a credit bureau. The study used data straight from credit reports, so these billions in bills are really hurting people.

RELATED: Medical Debt in the US, 2009-2020

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