Tucson Progressive

Pamela J. Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

New research on healthcare reform model shows Americans are still going bankrupt paying medical bills

The March issue of the American Journal of Medicine features new research and commentaries on healthcare reform.

Ignoring the real problem of skyrocketing medical costs– Republicans at the federal level want to cripple or kill the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare), and Republicans at the state level want to end the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), Arizona’s Medicaid program for the poor.

The Republicans spin is that people should have “more choice” than Obamacare allows (although Obamacare allows you to keep your current doctor and your current plan, if you like it) and that people should not be forced to buy insurance (although requiring insurance is a key element to ridding the system of the dreaded pre-existing conditions, which are universally despised by everyone but insurance companies). My question has always been: What do they think these poor people are going to do with no coverage? Medical care is not affordable in the US.

The federal Affordable Care Act was based upon the Massachusetts reform model (developed under former Governor Mitt Romney, who wants to be the next Republican president of the US). The Massachusetts model requires everyone to buy health insurance. (Yes, a Republican came up with that idea!)

“Does the Massachusetts model work?” is the research question a group of Harvard public health scientists asked. (Those darn Harvard scientists always asking questions. What do they know anyway?)

New research released this week in the American Journal of Medicine shows that although the Massachusetts system has worked in increasing coverage, it has not significantly reduced the rate of people going bankrupt trying to pay their medical bills. Even with this health insurance system, people can’t afford medical care.

In Medical Bankruptcy in Massachusetts: Has Health Reform Made a Difference? the Harvard group reported that although 89% of debtors had health insurance coverage, underinsurance– not having adequate coverage to pay one’s medical costs– was widespread. From the Journal’s blog

Health insurance coverage rates for Massachusetts debtors were higher in 2009 than in 2007 (89.0% vs 84.1%) and significantly higher than the national average in 2007 (89.0% vs 69.7%). Despite broad insurance coverage in Massachusetts after reform, bankruptcy filings due to medical costs did not decrease significantly between 2007 and 2009. There is a web of causality behind this finding. Although only 11% of Massachusetts debtors remained uninsured, there was widespread underinsurance, leaving people with high out-of-pocket costs in deductibles, co-pays, and uncovered services. In addition, many debtors lost their jobs due to illness or experienced reduced income due to illness. In cascading events, loss of income led to loss of housing in many cases.

The article provides a very clear example of how someone with insurance can still go broke if they get really sick.

What accounts for the seemingly paradoxical trends of increasing coverage yet stable, or even increasing (on a per capita basis), medical bankruptcy rates? Health costs in the state have increased sharply since reform was enacted.(9) Even before the changes in health care laws, most medical bankruptcies in Massachusetts, as in other states, affected middle-class families with health insurance. High premium costs and gaps in coverage—copayments, deductibles, and uncovered services—often left insured families liable for substantial out-of-pocket costs. None of that changed. For example, under Massachusetts’ reform, the least expensive individual coverage available to a 56-year-old Bostonian carries a premium of $5256 and a deductible of $2000, and covers only 80% of the next $15,000 in costs for covered services.(10) Thus, an insured couple with medical problems and an income greater than $44,000 (ie, >300% of poverty, the eligibility threshold for insurance subsidies) might pay $20,512 in annual medical expenses, a figure that far exceeds the financial capacities of the average American family.(11) Uncovered services, such as physical therapy, drugs, or home care, might push out-of-pocket costs even higher.

Progressives, who don’t like the Affordable Care Act because they believe doesn’t go far enough to protect Americans, have latched onto this new research and are using to to renew the rallying cry for single payer system (like Canada and many other countries worldwide).

So, although Republicans want to end healthcare reform and toss the middle class out to the free market (where they will really get … er… socked), the reality is that the current healthcare reform model may not be enough to protect working Americans from rising medical costs and financial ruin.

This issue of the Journal also includes three commentaries about the US healthcare system and healthcare reform.

On the Critical List: The US Institution of Medicine— a very good overview about the “rules of the game” and why US medical care is so expensive compared to other countries.

The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Healthcare Living Room— an editorial about unnecessary testing and tort reform.

The Affordable Care Act: Facing Up to the Power of the Pen and the Purse— a commentary on the attacks on reform.

2 comments on “New research on healthcare reform model shows Americans are still going bankrupt paying medical bills

  1. Jim Hannley
    March 11, 2011

    As usual, your post is chock full of important news and great links. I had the experience of shopping for health insurance last year. The best plan I could find was an 80/20 plan with a $10,000 annual deductible. I would be ruined with the deductible, I am embarrassed to admit. The premium? a mere $150/month. I am a healthy man who has not been sick in years. I opted to remain uninsured. I hope a better plan is on the horizon…somewhere.


  2. Martha Retallick
    March 11, 2011

    Since I’m self-employed, I’ve tried to find affordable individual health insurance. It’s not easy.

    For several years, I’ve been covered, if you want to call it that, by a HealthMarkets policy sold via an organization called the National Association for the Self Employed (NASE).

    After I purchased the policy, I learned that this company has been sued by several state attorneys general. There have also been class action suits. Do a search on “NASE class action” and you’ll find plenty of information.

    I’ve tried to get on the Arizona state plan for small business people, but guess what? Our legislature passed a law that excludes sole proprietors from this plan. Thanks a lot, legislature.

    So, I continue with HealthMarkets. Let me tell you, if and when the public option goes into effect, I will cheerfully cancel that HealthMarkets policy.

    All I can say is, I hope I live long enough to do so. I’m 53 years old and already avoid/delay regular checkups and tests because I fear that, if something is found, the cost of treatment will bankrupt me to the point where I will lose my house.

    So, that’s where things stand for me. Too bad that such things are allowed to happen in the richest country on earth.


Comments are closed.

Follow Me on Twitter

Follow Tucson Progressive on WordPress.com


The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

%d bloggers like this: