Americans Are Drowning in Medical Debt

More than half of U.S. adults struggle with medical costs — and it’s only going to get worse, researchers say.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

It’s no secret: Staying healthy can be downright expensive. In fact, more than half of Americans report that their health needs are breaking the bank.

Medical financial hardship is frighteningly common in the United States, affecting more than 100 million people, according to a new study by the American Cancer Society. The financial strain comes in part from the high out-of-pocket costs many people end up having to pay for their health care, which can lead to serious debt and serious emotional stress.

Some people end up forgoing medical care completely because of the high costs, which is, needless to say, not ideal. And being sick can lead to an inability to work, which could, in turn, result in a loss of employer-sponsored health insurance for some. It can be a vicious, downward spiral.

The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, used data from the 2015-2017 National Health Interview Survey. Researchers looked at medical hardship three different ways: material (difficulty paying bills), psychological (how much they worried about those bills), and behavioral (how much they delayed or skipped care altogether due to cost).

Overall, 56% of adults said they experienced at least one type of medical hardship, with people under 65 suffering more across all three categories than those who are older.

Adults 18 to 64 with less education and more health problems were most likely to report intense financial struggle, and women were more likely to report multiple areas of financial hardship than men. Logically, those without insurance were about twice as likely to report multiple areas of struggle compared to those with coverage. Even so, about 1 in 5 people with private or public insurance still experienced financial stress.

Unless something changes, these issues are only going to get worse.

"With increasing prevalence of multiple chronic conditions, higher patient cost-sharing, and higher costs of health care [overall], the risk of hardship will likely increase in the future,” the study authors wrote.

How to Get Financial Assistance

If you’re one of the millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet because of health care costs, these government resources may help:

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at