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The Financial Fallout of Chronic Illness

Summary: A new study finds that privately-insured individuals with chronic illness are far more likely to have medical debt that is delinquent or in collections, and credit problems. And the debt is larger. Our insurance system is punishing people for being ill.

Association of Chronic Disease with Patient Financial Outcomes Among Commercially Insured Adults
JAMA Internal Medicine
August 22, 2022
By Nora V. Becker et al.

From Abstract:

Among individuals with 0 vs 7 to 13 chronic conditions, the predicted probabilities of having any medical debt in collections (7.6% vs 32%), any nonmedical debt in collections (7.2% vs 24%), any delinquent debt (14% vs 43%), a low credit score (17% vs 47%) or recent bankruptcy (0.4% vs 1.7%) were all considerably higher for individuals with more chronic conditions and increased with each added chronic condition. Among individuals with medical debt in collections, the estimated amount increased with the number of chronic conditions ($784 for individuals with 0 conditions vs $1252 for individuals with 7-13 conditions) (all P < .001). In secondary analyses, results showed significant variation in the likelihood and amount of medical debt in collections across specific chronic conditions.

From Discussion:

Further research in this area is needed to determine the relative importance of these pathways, as the policy implications of each are different. If poor financial well-being leads to additional chronic disease, policy makers should consider new social safety-net policies to reduce poverty rates and should explicitly incorporate improvements in physical health—and correspondingly reduced health care spending—as a benefit of antipoverty programs. If, in contrast, chronic disease diagnoses are directly leading to adverse financial outcomes, then improving commercial insurance benefit design [JGK – For a different solution, see below.] would be warranted to provide additional protection from out-of-pocket medical expenses, particularly for conditions identified as being costly for patients. In addition, policy makers should consider expanding access to disability benefits and implementing other social safety net policies to help patients recoup income loss after illness.

Comment by: Jim Kahn

These findings come as no surprise – in our health insurance system with very high patient cost-sharing (deductibles, copays, and uncovered services), individuals with greater ongoing medical needs inevitably have more medical expenses, more debt, more low credit scores, and more bankruptcies.

The cost-sharing doesn’t control healthcare costs. So why do we design a health insurance system this way, to financially punish the ill?

You know the answer: it’s profitable for insurers. Costs shift from shareholders to patients. It’s also profitable for drug makers and providers who charge high prices and garner out-sized profits.

When will we adopt an insurance system that is humane – that serves and protects the ill? And that is, in the process, efficient, saving money for the healthcare system.

It sounds magical. It is. It’s called single payer.

(We also need far better income protection for individuals who are disabled by chronic illness.)

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