Video: Medical debts become major problem

By Chief medical editor
NBC News
updated 2/7/2007 7:37:30 PM ET 2007-02-08T00:37:30

Peggie Sherry is a cancer survivor. Her treatment took two years. Even with health insurance, she was left with $40,000 in uncovered medical bills.

"I would wake up and say, 'Oh my God, I have cancer,' and then the second thought is, 'How are we going to pay for this?'"

After depleting her savings, Sherry charged the rest of her medical expenses, some $10,000, to her credit card.

It's a practice that's becoming more common — 36 million Americans have medical debt.

Cindy Zeldin works for Demos, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. She says even the insured are not immune from this growing trend. 

"The direction of health insurance is towards greater individual risk, greater out-of-pocket expenses and those expenses are going right on to credit cards," she says.

According to a recent study by Demos and the Access Project, 29 percent of low and middle-income households with credit card debt had medical bills to blame. These households carried an average $11,623 debt, compared with $7,964 for those without medical debt.

Healthcare experts counter that hospitals are also in a tough position.

"The high deductible health plans are causing hospitals to have to collect more up front," says Richard Clarke with the Healthcare Financial Management Association. "They are worried about the fact that patients will need treatment, but yet they won't have the money to pay up front."

With healthcare costs rising faster than incomes, more families are at risk for financial trouble. More than a third of all personal bankruptcies are related to medical debt.

"We shouldn't have to worry that we're going to bankrupt our family," says Peggie Sherry.

In the end, Sherry paid off her card with an inheritance. She says no one should have to choose between financial security and good health.

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