A new study by economists Carlos Dobkin, Amy Finkelstein, Raymond Kluender, and Matthew J. Notowidigdo – “Myth and Measurement — The Case of Medical Bankruptcies” [subscription required] – challenges the conventional wisdom on the effect of medical bills on the rate of personal bankruptcy. From the study:
Policymakers’ beliefs about the frequency of medical bankruptcies are based primarily on two high-profile articles that claim that medical events cause approximately 60 percent of all bankruptcies in the United States. In these studies, people who had gone bankrupt were asked whether they’d experienced health-related financial stress such as substantial medical bills or income loss due to illness. People were also asked whether they went bankrupt because of medical bills. People who reported any of these events were described as having experienced a medical bankruptcy…
[But] the existing, widely cited evidence on medical bankruptcy is built on the fallacy that when two things occur together there is necessarily a causal relationship between them.
The study’s authors looked instead at people who had a hospitalization to see whether that expensive episode of care increased the probability of filing for bankruptcy. They write, “we estimate that hospitalizations cause only 4 percent of personal bankruptcies among nonelderly U.S. adults.” Even among uninsured adults, “hospitalizations are responsible for only 6 percent of personal bankruptcies.” While medical bills can still drive someone to bankruptcy even if they don’t experience a hospitalization, the authors conclude, “focusing on hospitalized people probably does not lead to vast underestimation of the effect of all illness and injury on bankruptcy rates.”
- Always be skeptical of everything you read. (Up to and including this blog!)
- Keep in mind this study does not show the overall personal bankruptcy rate is lower than believed. It shows only that the share attributable to medical expenses is lower than believed. It therefore follows that, to the extent your support for single-payer springs from a desire to reduce bankruptcies, you should shift your energies toward combating whatever is actually causing the 56 percent of bankruptcies you incorrectly believed to be attributable to medical expenses.
- Health care reform should be able to get the medical-bankruptcy rate down even more.