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Study: Fewer U.S. families struggling to pay medical bills; Uptick in Chicago?

Updated: July 8, 2013 6:18AM

Although a new government study suggests fewer families in America are struggling to their pay medical bills, healthcare officials in Chicago suggest an uptick locally in requests for public aid to cover hospital and related costs.

Nationally, the percentage of people under age 65 in families with problems paying their medical bills went from 21.7 percent in the first six months of 2011 to 20.3 percent in the first six months of 2012, according to a government study analyzing data from January 2011 to June 2012.

That translates into a decrease of about 3.6 million people.

Dr. Robin Cohen, one of the authors of the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pointed out some of the notable findings: People who are uninsured or have public insurance are twice as likely as people with private insurance to be in families that have problems paying medical bills, and those 17 years old and younger are more likely than adults to be in families with problems paying medical bills.

At the start of 2012, 54.2 million - or roughly 1 in 5 - people in the United States were struggling to pay their medical bills, according to the most recent data available.

Rush University Medical Center hasn’t seen a decrease, says director of patient services Kevin Harper. From fiscal year 2011 to 2012, Rush saw a 4 percent increase in applications to the institution’s financial assistance program, Harper said.

For fiscal year 2012 to 2013, there is a projected increase of 2.5 percent in applications for assistance. In 2012, Rush provided approximately $175 million worth of care to patients without the means to pay for it.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of insurance patients have, or if they have no insurance at all. We’ve seen a steady increase in people who need help paying their bills,” Harper said. “More and more people are unable to afford good insurance.”

Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council senior vice president Daniel Yunker said he had seen similar data, saying that local Chicagoland hospitals provided more than $1 billion in free medical care in 2010. MCHC is an advocacy and education organization that focuses on helping medical institutions provide health care to their communities.

Yunker said the recession had a lot to do with the numbers and he predicted an improvement in 2014 when the Affordable Care Act takes effect.

“My reaction to this is, good work, way to go,” he said. “In the new world next year, I’m hoping to see more improvements through public exchanges for those in lower-paying jobs. An improvement in the economy wouldn’t hurt either.”

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