Medical debt draining Kansans' resources, threatening health care access

State-wide report to be released at February 2 press conference

A new report documents that many lower-income Kansans face unaffordable medical bills, resulting in overwhelming debt that severely impairs their financial stability.

The report, "Playing by the rules but losing: How medical debt threatens Kansans' healthcare access and financial security," was written by The Access Project, a national research and health advocacy organization, which will release the research results on February 2nd. A phone-in press conference will be held that day at 10:00 a.m. CST.

The Access Project has published widely on the subject of medical debt. Its Kansas research was funded through grants from the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund as part of its mission to help improve the health of Kansans, as well as the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

According to Kim Moore, Health Fund president, the report reveals that medical debt is becoming commonplace in Kansas. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents in the study had medical debt, which affected people in every racial and ethnic group, and the insured as well as the uninsured.

The research found that people drew on whatever resources they had available to try to pay down their debt. "This report shows that Kansans are playing by the rules and trying to pay off their bills" Moore said, "but in spite of their struggle, they come up short. Something's wrong when so many people use up their hard-earned savings, borrow from friends, take out loans, and jeopardize their credit in order to pay off medical bills." The findings contradict the notion that many patients have the resources but simply refuse to pay for care.

The Access Project and its research partners at the Schneider Institute for Health Policy at Brandeis University worked with four community health centers in Kansas on the study. The researchers surveyed clients at the health centers located in Wichita, Garden City and Emporia -- gathering responses from over 1,000 participants. The survey examined respondents' medical debt from all sources, including hospitals, doctors, dentists, prescription medications, and ambulance services.

"These data document how seriously medical debt hinders people's access to health care," said report author Carol Pryor, senior policy analyst at The Access Project. "Nearly half of the people with debt delayed a doctor's visit because of their debt." The report found that many people were reluctant to seek needed care because they didn't want to go further into debt. Others were denied appointments because of their outstanding bills. Ms. Pryor stated, "The idea that people can always get health care if they need it, even if they can't pay for it, is simply not true."

"Delaying care is costly for patients and for the health care system," said Lougene Marsh, Director of the Flint Hills Community Health Center - Lyon County Health Department. "Medical debt is clearly interfering with proper medical treatment."

Even in families where everyone had been insured for the previous year, over half reported having medical debt. "The fact that so many Kansans with health insurance have crippling medical debt is a symptom of a health insurance system in need of repair," said Laurie Dale Marshall, Director of the Kansas Health Consumer Coalition. "This new information is critical and policymakers must carefully consider it before making changes that will force people with health insurance to take on more of the financial burden for their health care, which impedes their access to care. Many people are already unable to pay their deductibles and co-pays."

In another important finding, the report documented that even relatively small debts (under $800) caused serious problems, and these problems grew dramatically as the amount of debt increased.

The Access Project partnered on this project with the four community health centers, the Kansas Health Consumer Coalition, the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, as well as with researchers at Brandeis University Heller Graduate School of Social Policy. In addition to representatives from those groups, the speakers on February 2nd will include at least one consumer who struggled to pay her medical bills while coping with illness. Interested reporters can participate in the audio press conference by phone


Thursday, February 2nd, 10:00 a.m. CST.
Contact: Kristine Dean with the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund at 800-369-7191 or [email protected] to register to participate, and to request an embargoed copy of the report.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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