Most uninsured struggle to pay hospital bills

Uninsured families currently can afford to fully pay for only about 12 percent of the hospital stays they might experience, according to a new brief released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Those hospital stays for which the uninsured cannot pay in full account for 95 percent of the total amount that hospitals bill the uninsured, the brief says. Even among the uninsured with incomes above 400 percent of the federal poverty level--or $89,400 a year for a family of four in 2011--the hospitalizations for which patients could not pay in full accounted for 64 percent of the total amount hospitals billed the uninsured.

More than 2 million uninsured Americans are hospitalized annually, with about 58 percent (1.2 million) of those hospital stays resulting in bills of more than $10,000. Bills under $10,000 accounted for 9 percent of the total amount billed for hospital care provided to uninsured people, while bills over $100,000 accounted for 22 percent of total amount billed for uninsured care.

In all, approximately 50 million Americans are uninsured, HHS notes. Even among the top 10 percent of uninsured families with the most assets, they are estimated to be able to pay the full bill for only half of their potential hospital stays, the brief notes.

The report found that overall, the savings of many of the uninsured were meager: the median financial assets for all uninsured families were just $20. For half of families with income at or above 400 percent of the federal poverty level, their financial assets were below $4,100.

"One of the most enduring myths in American healthcare is that people without health insurance can get care with little or no problem," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a statement. "Nothing could be farther from the truth. The result is families going without care--or facing healthcare bills they can't hope to pay."

For more details:
- see the HHS brief