Medical Debt in America

July 29, 2022 • Volume 32, Issue 26
Should the government cancel what people owe?
By Reed Karaim


Medical debt is a problem for millions of Americans today. A reported 41 percent of U.S. adults are saddled with bills from hospitals and doctors' offices as well as those for prescription drugs and other health care needs. An estimated $140 billion in overdue medical debt is in collections. Analysts say America's medical debt problem is unparalleled in the developed world. President Biden, Congress and the major credit reporting agencies have taken steps to reduce the impact of medical debt on personal finances. But some activists say more needs to be done — including having the government cancel medical debt, which they say results from the nation's inadequate and overpriced health care system rather than personal failing. Critics say such a move would only encourage more medical debt, spur higher costs and tilt U.S. health care further toward serving only wealthy patients.

Photo of scattered medical bills on floor of shuttered hospital in Ellington, Missouri, on July 19, 2019. (Getty Images/The Washington Post/Michael S. Williamson)
Medical billing envelopes are scattered on the floor of the closed Southeast Health Center in Ellington, Mo., in 2019, a snapshot of the disruption that has buffeted the U.S. health care system. Some 41 percent of U.S. adults are grappling with medical debt. Solutions range from cancellation to requiring more transparency on the costs of care. (Getty Images/The Washington Post/Michael S. Williamson)
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