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Medical bankruptcy is an American scandal — no debate

September 6, 2019

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Michael Hiltzik
Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2019

You’ve got to hand it to Sen. Bernie Sanders for his ability to keep hot-button issues in the forefront of the presidential race.

The latest example is his assertion, made at least twice in the last month, that medical bills drive 500,000 Americans into bankruptcy every year. The Washington Post’s fact-checker column examined the numbers and concluded that Sanders deserved “three Pinocchios” for the statement, which means the Post found it “mostly false” and that Sanders was, basically, lying.

The Post blundered, as the authors of the study on which Sanders based his claim point out. In the real world, Sanders’ assertion that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills” is “mostly true.” Medical bankruptcy is an American scandal, and possibly even more common than he or the study’s authors calculate.

“At this point everyone agrees that many thousands of Americans suffer medical bankruptcies each year, but there’s still scholarly debate over exactly how many,” Himmelstein and Woolhandler wrote in response to the Post fact-checking. “Economists and business school professors (including some funded by the health insurance industry) generally offer lower estimates, and medical and legal researchers find higher numbers.”

Unquestionably, the individual burden of medical costs in the U.S. can be unsupportable and, in the richest country in the world, should be unnecessary. Sanders and Warren are right to point the finger at a dysfunctional healthcare financing system. Those who say things aren’t that bad are wrong; it’s worse. Debating whether the number of Americans forced into bankruptcy by medical debt is 500,000 or some other figure is nitpicking, and woefully beside the point. What everyone knows is that the threat is bad enough, and it can strike at anyone.


Sanders’s flawed statistic: 500,000 medical bankruptcies a year

By Salvador Rizzo
The Washington Post, August 28, 2019

This fact check has been updated with a rebuttal response

Sanders’s statements — “500,000 people go bankrupt every year because they cannot pay their outrageous medical bills” and “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills” — are unambiguous. He’s saying medical debts caused those 500,000 bankruptcies. However, correlation is not causation, and the study he’s citing doesn’t establish causation for all 500,000 bankruptcy cases.

One of the authors sent us rough estimates showing that Sanders might be on target, but those numbers deserve scientific scrutiny before they can be taken as fact.

The omissions and twists are significant enough to merit Three Pinocchios for Sanders.


Medical Bankruptcy is Real, Even if the Washington Post Refuses to Believe it

By David U. Himmelstein, M.D. and Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H

The Washington Post has broken new ground, calling a presidential candidate a liar for citing a statistic from research published in the world’s leading public health journal. The Post’s Fact Checker column labeled Bernie Sanders a “three pinocchio” level liar for saying that 500,000 Americans are bankrupted by medical bills each year. Sanders’ statement relied on research that we and three colleagues published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). Dozens of politicians and publications (including the Post itself!) have cited that study as a reliable source.

Our AJPH study was part of an ongoing research effort by the Consumer Bankruptcy Project (CBP). For decades, the CBP has been surveying debtors about the causes (including medical ones) and consequences of their bankruptcy. In our 2019 research, 37.0% of bankrupts “very much” agreed that medical bills were an important factor, while another 21.5% “somewhat agreed”. Many others cited lost wages due to illness, and overall, two-thirds cited illness-related bills, income loss or both. As we wrote in the AJPH, that’s “. . . equivalent to about 530 000 medical bankruptcies annually.” That figure is in line with estimates based on our earlier CBP studies (carried out with then-Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren and sociologist Deborah Thorne), which were published in leading medical and policy journals.

But even the 530,000 figure is an underestimate of the number of people affected by medical bankruptcies. Most bankruptcies involve more than one person – an average of about 2.7 people, often including a spouse/partner and children. That means that the 750,000 bankruptcies last year involved more than 2 million people. And even if you use the most restrictive definition of medical bankruptcy – i.e. including only debtors who “very much” agreed that medical bills were a cause of their bankruptcy – Sanders’ 500,000 figure is, if anything, too low. The right number is more like three quarters of a million.

And our studies aren’t the only indicator that many American families suffer a crushing burden of medical bills. A Nobel Prize winner was forced to sell his medal to pay medical bills. More than 250 000 people sought to raise funds for medical bills through GoFundMe campaigns last year. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, medical bills account for more than half of all unpaid bills sent to collection agencies. And in a New York Times/Kaiser Foundation survey, more than one quarter of respondents said they or someone in their household had a problem paying medical bills, and of them, 11% said they’d declared bankruptcy due, at least in part to medical bills.

So why did the Fact Checker claim that Sanders told a whopper? That claim rests on an econometric study that found only a modest uptick in bankruptcy filings among persons hospitalized in California between 2003 and 2007. But that study appeared tailor made to undercount medical bankruptcies. As we and Elizabeth Warren noted in our response to it in the New England Journal of Medicine, it excluded most people who were frequently hospitalized (a group that’s at high risk of medical bankruptcy); it assumed that anyone not hospitalized could not suffer medical bankruptcy (even though people who aren’t hospitalized in the course of a year account for four-fifths of all out-of-pocket medical bills); that no one is bankrupted by bills for a child’s or partners’ care; and that potentially bankrupting illnesses never start before the moment of hospitalization – an assumption contradicted by the study’s own data.

Yet despite these flaws, the economists behind the study insisted (and the Post believed) that their math was a more reliable indicator of what caused financial ruin than the testimony (and court records that we’ve used as cross-check) from the thousands of debtors surveyed and interviewed by the CBP.

At this point everyone agrees that many thousands of Americans suffer medical bankruptcies each year, but there’s still scholarly debate over exactly how many; economists and business school professors (including some funded by the health insurance industry) generally offer lower estimates, and medical and legal researchers find higher numbers. We’d be happy to see the Post report the facts and nuances of that debate. But instead it’s chosen a side and labeled those on the other side – researchers, public figures who cite their research, and the debtors who shared their painful stories – “liars.”

David U. Himmelstein, M.D. and Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H. are both Distinguished Professors of Public Health, City University of New York at Hunter College and Lecturers in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and the founders of Physicians for a National Health Program.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

The United States is unique in supporting a health care financing system that results in financial hardship for millions of people due to medical bills. Many of those individuals end up in personal bankruptcy whether those bills were a contributor or a “cause” of the bankruptcy.

For many years now, the bankruptcy statistics have been debated, not based on whether medical bills cause financial hardship or contribute to bankruptcy – they clearly do and on a massive scale. Rather, the debate has been over the definition of “cause” when used to estimate the number of bankruptcies “caused” by medical bills. Those who wish to discredit the bankruptcy studies seem to disregard medical debt as “a” cause of bankruptcy and insist that only medical debt as “the” (presumably sole) cause of bankruptcy be counted in the statistics.

David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler, in their response above, set the record straight. Medical debt in the United States is a horrendous problem that creates much hardship, and it is totally unnecessary.

All we need to do is to separate the health care financing system from the delivery of health care. We can finance the entire health care system with equitable taxes that are affordable for each of us without creating any personal financial hardship. Then when individuals need health care they can get it without the necessity of paying insurance premiums nor deductibles, copayments or coinsurance as a condition for accessing health care.

A Single Payer Medicare for All system would ensure health care for everyone without exposing them to financial hardship nor personal bankruptcy due to medical debt. The media and policy community should stick to the issues that actually impact our health care rather than distracting us with their pinocchio mischief.

Stay informed! Visit www.pnhp.org/qotd to sign up for daily email updates.

About the Commentator, Don McCanne

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Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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