Medical debt leads to deferred healthcare

More than a third of patients with medical debt are avoiding receiving the care they need due to that debt.

High medical debt is keeping a large portion of Americans from receiving the healthcare they need.

According to a news release from credit reporting company TransUnion Healthcare, 35 percent of patients with outstanding medical debt say that those bills have deterred them from seeking care in the past 12 months.

“It’s scary and sad to know people are forgoing their physical and mental health for fear that they’ll ruin their financial health with medical treatment,” Jonathan Wiik, principal of healthcare strategy for TransUnion Healthcare, says in the release. “By communicating with patients early on, helping them understand their cost of care and their payment options—including financial assistance—healthcare systems can improve outcomes for patients as well as the hospital’s bottom line.”

The company also notes a 55 percent increase in the number of financial assistance transactions processed by TransUnion between September 2020 and September 2021. This indicates that hospitals are more proactive in working with patients to understand what their needs are financially and presenting appropriate options, the release says.

“By communicating with patients early on, helping them understand their cost of care and their payment options—including financial assistance—healthcare systems can improve outcomes for patients as well as the hospital’s bottom line,” Wiik says.

Using data from millions of financial assistance transactions from more than 1,000 hospitals and physician practices, the company has found that these transactions have tracked upward year-over-year since it began collecting the data in September 2018. Since that time the number of financial assistance transactions rose 270 percent, according to the release.

The number of financial assistance transactions was probably increased by the pandemic-spawned economic downturn, but other factor like billing practices may play a role as well. Previously the company had found that 70 percent of patients have said that knowing costs before a procedure would help them anticipate charges and budget for payments, and a further 65 percent said they would make at least a partial payment if the provider supplied an advance estimate, the release says.

“This data reflect the increased financial pressure on healthcare systems as well as patients who are struggling with the burden of high healthcare costs,” Wiik says. “We are recommending that hospitals engage patients confidently and increase transparency and communication in regard to billing, beginning with providing patients a clear understanding of the cost of care at intake, and then streamlining financial clearance and charity screening throughout the revenue cycle.”