15% of adults have past-due medical debt. Much of that is owed to hospitals

About 15% of nonelderly American adults have past-due medical debt, the majority of which is owed to hospitals, according to a new analysis.

The report from left-leaning think tank Urban Institute found that nearly 73% of the people who said they have past-due medical debt owe part or all of that debt to hospitals. About 28% said they owe all of their debt to hospitals, and about 45% said they owe that debt to hospitals and other providers.

Most of the adults who had past-due medical debt owed at least $1,000, according to the analysis, while 1 in 5 of those surveyed owed more than $5,000. The study found that people with past-due hospital bills tended to have higher amounts of medical debt than those who owed money to other types of providers.

“These findings highlight the persistent challenge of medical debt in America, and the role of hospitals as a key source of that debt,” said Michael Karpman, Urban Institute principal research associate, in a press release. “Understanding the experiences of people with past-due medical bills can inform discussions around new consumer protections to alleviate debt burdens.” 

Medical debt also disproportionately effects people with low incomes, according to the report. Most adults (60.9%) who reported that they had past-due debt had been contacted by a collection agency, and those living at 250% of the federal poverty line were not less likely to be referred to collections compared to higher-income patients.

People with lower incomes were also not more likely to receive discounted care compared to their wealthier counterparts, according to the study.

Survey respondents who were at or below 100% of the federal poverty level were also the most likely group to report having past-due medical bills, according to the report. In addition, the analysis found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely than white adults to report overdue medical debt.

“High rates of medical debt underscore the challenges millions of families and adults—especially families and adults struggling to make ends meet—face trying to pay their medical bills,” said Gina Hijjawi, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which backed the study, in a release. “We see that individuals with disabilities, and Black and Latino adults are disproportionately represented among adults carrying past-due medical debt. Consumers need standards in place that protect them from undue medical debt and help them obtain affordable care.”