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Fewer People Having Trouble Paying Medical Bills

Fewer people skipped needed health care due to its cost or reported trouble paying medical bills in 2014, a new survey finds.  These improvements, the first since the Commonwealth Fund began asking these questions roughly a decade ago, came as health reform’s major coverage expansions took effect in 2014. Among the survey’s findings:

  • The number of people ages 19-64 without health insurance showed a statistically significant drop for the first time in the history of the biennial survey, from 36 million in 2012 to 29 million in 2014. The share of the population without insurance fell from 19 to 16 percent.
  • The share of people who failed to get needed health care because of cost fell from 43 percent in 2012 to 36 percent in 2014. This means fewer people said they skipped a recommended test, didn't fill a prescription, avoided visiting a doctor or clinic when having a health problem, or failed to see a specialist for needed follow-up care.
  • The number of adults who reported problems with medical debt (such as difficulty paying bills) fell from an estimated 75 million in 2012 to 64 million in 2014.  The share of the population reporting these problems fell from 41 to 35 percent.
  • Critics of health reform suggested it would harm young adults, but the opposite appears to be the case. People ages 19-34 made the biggest coverage gains of any age group between 2012 and 2014, with those with incomes below about $47,000 for a family of four seeing the greatest improvement.

As the survey report notes, the gains in health coverage—and the related reductions in people’s financial problems — may partly reflect an improving economy.  However, the coverage gains were far greater in the recovery from the 2007-09 recession, just as health reform took effect, than in the recovery from the previous (2001) recession, our analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows — a sign that health reform’s coverage expansions also played an important role. Health reform enabled millions of people to obtain more affordable coverage in 2014, through both the Medicaid expansion in many states and the creation of insurance marketplaces that provide federal subsidies to reduce people’s premiums and cost-sharing charges.  Health reform also improved access to coverage by barring health insurers in the individual market from denying coverage or charging higher premiums to people with health problems, and it limited how much insurers could charge older people compared to younger people. Even before 2014, the law began improving access to coverage, including by requiring most insurance plans to cover adult dependents up to age 26 beginning in 2010. Millions of Americans still have trouble affording health care, and we need to do more to address that problem.  But, in part due to health reform, the situation is looking up.