Medical Bankruptcy in Massachusetts: Has Health Reform Made a Difference?

By David U. Himmelstein, MD, Deborah Thorne, PhD, Steffie Woolhandler, MD, MPH
The American Journal of Medicine
March 2011

Despite a marked declined in the uninsurance rate in Massachusetts since the implementation of health reform, the proportion of bankruptcies that occurred in the wake of medical problems has not decreased significantly, and the absolute number of medical bankruptcies has actually increased by one third.

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. 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.

Conclusions

The recently enacted national health reform law closely mirrors Massachusetts’ reform. That reform expanded the number of people with insurance but did little to upgrade existing coverage or reduce costs, leaving many of the insured with inadequate financial protection. Our data do not suggest that health care reform cannot sharply reduce the number of medical bankruptcies. Indeed, medical bankruptcy rates appear lower in Canada, where national health insurance provides universal, first dollar coverage. Instead, these data suggest that reducing medical bankruptcy rates in the United States will require substantially improved — not just expanded — insurance, as well as better disability insurance programs to provide income support to ill individuals and family caregivers.

http://www.pnhp.org/sites/default/files/docs/2011/AJM_Mass-Reform-hasnt-stopped-med-bankruptcies.pdf

“Unaffordable underinsurance” is rapidly becoming the new standard in the United States. Even with subsidies, insurance premiums are ever less affordable, and for those who need health care, out-of-pocket spending creates significant financial hardships. Since reform under the Affordable Care Act closely mirrors that of Massachusetts, their current experience with medical bankruptcy portends the future of medical bankruptcy throughout the United States.

The Massachusetts experience shows that merely providing insurance coverage to the majority of the population is not enough. The quality of the insurance coverage is crucial. In 2009, 89% of Massachusetts debtors and all their dependents had health insurance at the time of filing, yet the insurance was not effective in reducing the rate of medical bankruptcy below levels that already existed before the full implementation of the Massachusetts health reform program.

Other nations with first dollar coverage do not see medical bankruptcies, even though they cover everyone at a much lower cost. We could do the same here. In fact, we most likely will once the nation understands that “unaffordable underinsurance” is rapidly becoming the new national norm – now carved in stone by the Affordable Care Act. We just need more highly skilled artisans to rework that stone.