How much of our medical debt do you think is in the hands of debt collectors? A 2016 study put the figure at $81 billion—and new research says that's way off. A paper published Tuesday in JAMA made use of 10% of all credit reports from TransUnion and found nearly 1 in 5 Americans (17.8%) had medical debt that was in collections in June 2020, to the tune of $140 billion in total. "When you think about financial distress—debt collectors calling and knocking on doors of households—our research shows that more than half the time now, it is about medical debt," says lead author Neale Mahoney of Stanford. "That’s a pretty stunning and uniquely American phenomenon."
On the stunning front, a Stanford article on the report notes this: Medical debt isn't just the leading source of debt collections, it outpaces debt in collections from credit cards, utilities, auto loans, and other sources combined. And it's possible the true sum of medical debt is higher, as Mahoney notes his figure doesn't include medical costs paid with a credit card; if someone defaulted on those, it would be categorized as credit card debt in collections. The researchers also found that Medicaid expansion had an "ameliorating effect" for those Americans who experienced it, as the New York Times puts it. To wit, per the Times: "In 2020, Americans living in states that did not expand Medicaid owed an average of $375 more than those in states that participated in the program, roughly a 30% increase from the gap that existed the year before enactment." (Read more debt collection stories.)