Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Report: More than a quarter of county residents have medical debt


August 31, 2009 7:04 AM

More than 25 percent of Santa Barbara County residents have medical debt, according to a new report released from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

After analyzing the California Health Interview Survey -- medical debt was added as a point of study in 2007 -- every year for the past four years, the research center estimates that 25.8 percent of Santa Barbarans currently have some medical debt.

Authors of "The State of Health Insurance in California" found that two-thirds of the 2.2 million California adults who report having medical debt say they incurred the debt while insured.

Findings include reports that 32.3 percent of those with medical debt delay receiving medical treatment when needed, compared to 16.1 percent of those without such debt.

The report also showed that the amount of debt someone incurs correlates directly with how long he or she delays seeking treatment.

Of those with medical debt, 55.4 percent reported severe financial consequences, including credit card debt and bankruptcy.

Dr. Shana Alex Lavarreda said a concern of the nonpartisan center is high-deductible plans.

"The reality is that people end up having high deductibles and not having any kind of safety net," she said.

The report found that approximately 40 percent of individuals with privately purchased insurance coverage plans chose plans with $1,000 or more or $2,000 for a family plan.

Dr. Lavarreda said the current healthcare system is not adequate.

"The whole point of insurance is to cover people," she said. "What we need is some other...option of coverage."

According to Dr. Lavarreda, the answer could lie in the proposed healthcare reform bill that is currently before Congress.

"I'm a fan of the healthcare reform that's going in right now," she said. "The last time we saw large populations who were uninsured was in the '60s, and then we ended up with Medicare and Medicaid, so hopefully we'll end up with some kind of government-funded program."

Dr. Lavarreda said the medical debt is not highly concentrated in any particular socioeconomic category.

"It was pretty evenly distributed among the poverty level so it didn't seem to be the household income," she said. "The coverage that you get doesn't do what you need it to do."

What she did find was that those who may have been laid off due to the troubled economy, causing them to lose their insurance partway through the year, incurred the greatest medical debt.

"What I take away from that is that the job-based coverage isn't necessarily doing what it should be doing," she said.

For more information, visit healthpolicy.ucla.edu.

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