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Insight & Analysis / Mapping Data A to Z: Problems Paying Medical Bills

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I once asked a coworker what she missed most about being a kid. Neighborhood friendships? Summer vacations? Playing Mario Kart on Nintendo 64?

 “Not having to pay bills,” she said, without a bit of hesitation.

No one likes paying bills, but as grown-ups we know there’s not a choice. And some of the biggest bills we face may be for medical care. For more than 800,000 Coloradans, these medical bills aren’t just an annoyance. They’re a cause of stress and financial hardship.

While health insurance is meant to protect us from most financial liability associated with medical tests, doctors’ appointments and surgeries, it’s no guarantee that we won’t face monetary misfortune.

The 2015 Colorado Health Access Survey (CHAS) found that 16.4 percent of Coloradans (870,000 people) are underinsured and 6.7 percent (353,000 people) have no health insurance coverage. That translates into more than 1.2 million people who are at an elevated risk for not being able to afford their health care.

And it seems that much of that risk is being realized, especially in the western half of the state. According to the CHAS, 15.2 percent of Coloradans had trouble paying their medical bills in the previous 12 months. Of that group, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) saved less or withdrew money from a savings account to cover medical costs. About 44 percent said they took on credit card debt and 37 percent had to skimp on necessities like food, heat or rent.

The survey found that residents of southwestern Colorado are more likely to have problems than most others. Just over 27 percent of people in Saguache, Mineral, Rio Grande, Alamosa, Conejos and Costilla counties (Health Statistics Region 8) said they had difficulty with health care bills in the past year. That rate was 12 percentage points higher than the state rate, or an 80 percent difference.

Residents of most parts of eastern and central Colorado, by contrast, had less trouble paying their medical bills, with those in Boulder County (Health Statistics Region 16) and Douglas County (Health Statistics Region 3) having the least difficulty. These two counties are among the wealthiest in the state based on per-capita income, which may offer a partial explanation.

Underinsurance also can lead to financial stress. The CHAS found that 29.1 percent of underinsured Coloradans — those who are insured but have out-of-pocket medical costs that eat up 10 percent or more of their annual income  — reported problems paying medical bills, three times the 7.8 percent rate of those with adequate insurance.

Since this is one adult responsibility that can’t be ignored, Coloradans’ ability to afford their medical care will continue to hold a prominent place in health policy discussions.

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