Report Shows Many NJ Residents Struggle with Medical Debt

Healthcare Affordability Issues Persist Even for Families with Insurance

October 12, 2022 – Trenton, NJ – New Jersey Citizen Action in partnership with Healthcare Value Hub at Altarum released a report today detailing how many state residents are struggling to pay down medical debt. Of the 963 New Jerseyans surveyed who have medical debt, 38% had overdue medical bills not in collections, while 30% had overdue medical bills in collections and 25% were enrolled in a payment plan to pay down their medical debt.

“There is a clear medical debt crisis that is happening in New Jersey as well as across the country,” said Laura Waddell, Health Care Program Director at NJ Citizen Action. “The results of this survey show the other side of health care that is not always spoken about. We now have a good sense of just how badly people are impacted and how medical debt prevents them from seeking additional medical care or providing for their families. As we look to decrease the disparities in health coverage, we must also look to those being affected by medical debt and address its root cause along with affordability for those with insurance or this crisis will worsen.”

The survey was conducted from March 29th to April 11th, 2022. Nearly 3 in 10 respondents (29%) reported owing $5,000 or more in medical debt. More than 1 in 10 (11%) reported having medical debt over $10,000. Nearly 2 in 5 respondents (36%) said medical debt has prevented them or someone living with them from seeking care when they needed it. Of the 71% of respondents who reported paying any amount toward their medical debt in the past year, nearly 1 in 5 (19%) reported using money intended for necessities like food or housing to pay that debt.

“Our survey finds that medical debt amongst New Jerseyans occurs across all income-level brackets and insurance types, with the vast majority of respondents reporting having health insurance at the time their debt occurred and being in good health,” said Beth Beaudin-Seiler, PhD, Director of Healthcare Value Hub. “The data upends any assumptions that medical debt is exclusive to individuals who are uninsured, in poor health or earning lower incomes. Given the health and financial impacts of medical debt, policymakers should continue to prioritize policies that address medical debt across a broad spectrum of individuals.”

Almost all (96%) of the NJ respondents with medical debt reported having health insurance and 4 in 5 (80%) reported being in good, very good or excellent health. Just over half (51%) said they have employer-sponsored insurance, while lower numbers are covered by Medicare (19%), insurance bought on the exchange (13%) and NJ Family Care (13%). Three in four respondents (75%) had no gaps in coverage in the past 12 months.

“Medical debt is a scourge across the nation and New Jersey is not immune. This survey found that almost half of respondents with hospital-incurred medical debt were not informed by their hospital of its financial assistance plan or about charity care. Hospitals have a statutory obligation to inform every patient of possible financial assistance when receiving care. That information alone would prevent medical debt for so many New Jerseyans,” said Debbie White, RN, President of Health Professionals and Allied Employees. “New Jersey Hospitals need to step up and do what is required of them as a first step in ending medical debt.”

Among respondents with coverage, almost half (49%) reported accruing medical debt because their insurance plan did not cover the service. One-third (33%) said they accrued medical debt because their deductible was too high and they were unable to meet it, while 14% reported that their coinsurance was too high.

“This report confirms what we already knew – that far too many people in New Jersey, as elsewhere, are burdened by medical debt, and that the vast majority of them have insurance and are generally healthy. There are just too many gaps in coverage along with high deductibles and copays in our for-profit health system,” said Renee Steinhagen, President of New Jersey Appleseed. “The report also shows the harmful impacts of medical debt in forcing people to choose between obtaining needed medical care or paying the rent or other bills. There is little doubt that medical debt also makes it difficult to save money — for buying a house, paying for a child’s college education, preparing for retirement, etc. All in all, the report highlights the reality that we, as a society, must establish a health delivery system that ensures that everyone, regardless of income and health status, has access to affordable, quality care.”

As part of its free annual Financial Justice Summit, New Jersey Citizen Action will be discussing the issue of medical debt with invited guest experts, alongside several other financial challenges NJ residents face. Speakers include Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and CFPB Director Rohit Chopra. The Summit will be held virtually on Thursday, October 13 starting at 10 am. Registration is available here: https://p2a.co/fw1OBP9.

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