|By Peggy O'Hare, San Antonio Express-News|
But the fear of incurring such debt persists — and discourages some consumers with low incomes or no health insurance from even seeking medical care, several experts told the
"I've been hearing this literally for 30 years," said Dr.
"When I would say to someone, 'You're so sick, you should really go to the hospital,' some of the people would say to me, 'I can't afford to do that' … They'd rather take their chances dying on the outside than going in and having a bill they can't afford to pay," said Usatine, also a family medicine professor and a dermatology professor at the health science center.
Little scientific research has been published on the subject of medical debt, experts said. But the
Its latest study found that 22 percent of consumers with collections on their credit reports have nothing but medical debts. Half of those show no other indications of "serious past delinquencies" on their credit reports, the bureau concluded.
"A large portion of consumers with medical debts in collections show no other evidence of financial distress and are consumers who ordinarily pay their other financial obligations on time," the bureau stated in Consumer Credit Reports: A Study of Medical and Non-Medical Collections.
A separate report previously released by the
Unpaid medical debts that backslid into collections — the focus of the recent study — tended to be for small amounts. The median amount owed was
The fear of medical debt afflicts both the uninsured and the underinsured — those with minimal health plans who could face large out-of-pocket expenses for health care, said Dr.
Sunil believes this contributes to the public's increasing interest in "medical tourism," a phenomenon where people travel to
"Primarily, one of the reasons is that it's either they don't have insurance … or they can get cheaper treatment with the same level of quality," Sunil said. "The affordability becomes an issue."
People who face barriers to financial, educational or medical resources often delay seeking health care, leading to them getting diagnosed with conditions or diseases at much later stages, said Dr.
"A lot of stigma becomes attached with having this additional kind of barrier — the medical debt," Sparks said. As a result, she added, these patients "don't want to go seek out help again. So it may be that their condition is so bad that they have to seek out emergency treatment or something, and that's costly."
"I see often sometimes people are so overwhelmed by the whole incident … that they just put (the medical bill) aside and don't bother with it," Apgar said. "I've also seen people who will suddenly out of nowhere find that they have a collection item when they tell me they never got a bill."
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