Americans are drowning in medical debt. From 2009 to 2020, medical bills were the largest source of debt in the U.S., with a record $140 billion owed last year, according to a recent study from the Journal of the American Medical Association. The record accounts only for the debt that has been sent to collections.
Neale Mahoney, a Stanford economics professor and lead author of the study, said medical bills are often higher for people living in a dozen states that chose not to expand eligibility for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“The fact that the health care system, which is supposed to heal people, is creating half of debt in collections in the United States is something that I think is quite distressing,” he said.
Alysa Gummow lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which is one of the states that did not expand Medicaid eligibility.
When a man showed up at Gummow’s front door in October with a court summons, the single mother was crushed. For the second time, she was being sued for unpaid medical bills her insurance didn’t cover.
“I felt like a criminal, like, I was doing something wrong,” she said. “It just makes me feel like a failure.”
A $50,000 bill for hip surgery forced her into bankruptcy in 2017, despite having a full-time job.
Gummow said she never thought she would be in this financial situation. “Middle-class Americans, we get the short end of the stick. It’s not fair,” she said.
Now she has a job that pays more, but not enough to afford new bills not covered by her high-deductible insurance plan.
Debt collectors call day and night. Gummow is now on a payment plan, but the $193 a month leaves her choosing between prescriptions and groceries.
“I feel like I will be in debt the rest of my life,” Gummow said.