Bankruptcy Rises With Health Costs

Seattle Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

There are all sorts of ways to measure the effects of the steep increases in medical costs over the past decade. Employers, doctors, governments and workers have all felt the pain of skyrocketing medical costs.

A recent statewide report by the Working for Health Coalition gauges the impact of soaring health-care costs through personal bankruptcy trends. The conclusion is sobering: The high cost of health care is driving a growing number of Washington state families to financial ruin.

As the report by the coalition of health care, labor, faith, children's and education organizations estimates, the number of personal bankruptcies in the state has tripled since 1991. Nearly half of the financial failures were caused by medical debt.

Medical bills can pile up quickly for working families — whether or not they are insured. The report found half of the people who declared bankruptcy due to medical debt had health insurance.

Health-insurance premiums are growing each year by double-digit percentages. Many workers pay more out-of-pocket health-care expenses, including higher premium contributions and co-pays. Some can afford it. Many low-income families simply cannot. Some drop off health plans. Others stay insured but cannot pay the portion insurance does not cover. The bills mount.

A recent Seattle Times story reported the high price of health care caused former Olympia Mayor Dave Skramstad to sell his four-bedroom house and move into a mobile home. Skramstad had insurance, but it did not cover all the home-health-care costs incurred by his wife, who died of cancer.

The consequences of rising health-care costs extend beyond individuals and families who default on their medical bills. In numerous ways, society eventually foots the bill.

When poor pregnant women do not receive prenatal care and public schoolchildren show up for class with major health problems, everyone pays. When employees cost more, employers are slower to hire new ones. The economy remains stagnant.

This is an unsustainable course. Containing health-care costs and figuring out how to equitably spread its burden among individuals, employers and the government is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

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