Medical Debt Is 'Financially Crippling' Families In Kansas And Missouri

Jun 12, 2018
Originally published on June 12, 2018 1:45 pm

A quarter of Kansas working-age adults and a third of the state’s children live in households dealing with medical debt.

That’s one of the takeaways from a new report commissioned by five Kansas and Missouri health foundations, believed to be the largest survey to date of health consumers in the two states.

In Kansas, about 2,600 adults and minors were included. The survey answers point to problems with access to dental and mental health care, among other services.

A fifth of the working-age respondents in Kansas lacked health insurance.

David Jordan, president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, said the report sheds light on problems that also affect people’s ability to work or go to school, and hence contribute to the economy.

"Medical debt and lack of insurance is financially crippling families in Kansas and Missouri,” Jordan said. “It’s preventing them from getting the treatment that they need.”

Medical debt affects people’s credit ratings and ability to pay for housing, added Sheldon Weisgrau, director of the Health Reform Resource Project.

“It’s a community-wide issue,” he said.

The survey doesn’t show what percentage of households struggling to pay medical bills had accrued their debt despite having health insurance, as opposed to those without it.

Tom Duffy, a senior research scientist at RTI International, which conducted the Kansas-Missouri survey and has examined data from other parts of the country, said some states that expanded Medicaid to cover more low-income adults saw their medical debt rates go down.

Thirty-four states have expanded Medicaid and three others are considering doing so. Kansas and Missouri, however, are not among them.

In 2017 the Kansas Legislature voted to expand Medicaid to cover Kansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. But then-governor Sam Brownback vetoed the bill. Brownback had argued Medicaid shouldn’t extend to adults without disabilities, and that including them would be bad for state finances and for Kansans with disabilities.

The new survey found that 44 percent of working-age Kansans (ages 19 to 64) whose household income falls below 138 percent of the poverty line don’t have health insurance.

Other findings in the new survey:

  • Fourteen percent of the working-age Kansans who took part in the survey said the cost of health care or a lack of health insurance was preventing them from seeking medical care right now. Their most common needs were dental care, general medical care and surgery. One-fifth said they were skimping on their prescribed medications – for  example, by skipping doses – to save money.

  • Nearly 40 percent of adults in the survey and 17 percent of children did not have dental insurance.

  • Most working-age Kansans (19 to 64 years old) have been diagnosed with a chronic condition, such as hypertension or heart disease. Because some lack health insurance or worry they can’t afford the care they need, one in five didn’t receive treatment for their condition in the past year.

  • Many adults with mental health diagnoses didn’t get care either. Nearly a third of working age adults had a mental health diagnosis or substance addiction.

  • More than half of Hispanic working-age adults in Kansas were uninsured, compared to one-fifth for the overall working-age population. About 60 percent of the uninsured had jobs and 10 percent had disabilities that prevent them from working.

  • Seventy percent of working-age adults said they had a usual place for seeking health care apart from an emergency room or urgent care facility.

The survey found many of these problems – including lack of insurance, dental care and care for mental health or chronic conditions – are most prevalent among low-income families.

Editor’s note: The Kansas News Service – an editorially independent collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio – receives funding from some of the foundations that commissioned the survey. Namely, the Kansas Health Foundation, the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, the REACH Healthcare Foundation and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City. 

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

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