Most uninsured hospital stays go unpaid

Costs of care provided to Americans without health insurance are shifted to those who are covered, according to an HHS report.

By Charles Fiegl — Posted May 20, 2011

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Hundreds of thousands of Americans without health insurance have racked up tens of billions of dollars annually in hospital bills that they cannot pay, according to a Dept. of Health and Human Services report.

In 2008, hospitals had 2.1 million hospitalizations of uninsured people. About 1.2 million, or 58%, ended up with hospital bills in excess of $10,000. Hospitalizations with costs of more than $100,000 accounted for 6% of uninsured hospital stays.

There's no truth to the assertion that people without health insurance can get care with no problem, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a May 10 statement accompanying the release of the study. Uninsured families cannot pay the full hospital admission bills 95% of the time, because they lack enough money in individual savings accounts.

"The result is families going without care or facing health care bills they can't hope to pay," Sebelius said. "When the uninsured cannot afford the care they receive, that cost must be absorbed by other payers."

HHS cites reports by Families USA and the journal Health Affairs showing that total uncompensated care in the U.S. was between $56 billion and $73 billion in 2008. Two-thirds of that amount is attributed to hospital care.

The costs of unpaid hospital bills is shifted to other patients with insurance. A 2008 Kaiser Family Foundation study found adults with private insurance "spend about $350 per person through taxes, donations and payments for private health care and private insurance to subsidize care received by the uninsured."

Uncompensated care for the uninsured and underinsured is borne by everyone, said American Medical Association President Cecil B. Wilson, MD. The AMA supports efforts to improve access to insurance so people can receive the care they need.

"To reduce the burden of the cost of uncompensated care and ensure all patients have access to preventive medical care, we support individual responsibility for health insurance for all Americans with assistance for those who cannot afford it on their own," Dr. Wilson said.

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