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Wednesday, February 02, 2005
On this day:

Harvard Study: Illness, Injury Major Contributors to Bankruptcies

The report claims the following policy implications:

Our data highlight four deficiencies in the financial safety net for American families confronting illness. First, even brief lapses in insurance coverage may be ruinous and should not be viewed as benign. While forty-five million Americans are uninsured at any point in time, many more experience spells without coverage. We found little evidence that such gaps were voluntary. Only a handful of medical debtors with a gap in coverage had chosen to forgo insurance because they had not perceived a need for it; the overwhelming majority had found coverage unaffordable or effectively unavailable. The privations suffered by many debtors—going without food, telephone service, electricity, and health care—lend credence to claims that coverage was unaffordable and belie the common perception that bankruptcy is an “easy way out.”

Second, many health insurance policies prove to be too skimpy in the face of serious illness. We doubt that such underinsurance reflects families’ preference for risk; few Americans have more than one or two health insurance options. Many insured families are bankrupted by medical expenses well below the “catastrophic” thresholds of high-deductible plans that are increasingly popular with employers. Indeed, even the most comprehensive plan available to us through Harvard University leaves faculty at risk for out-of-pocket expenses as large as those reported by our medical debtors.

Third, even good employment-based coverage sometimes fails to protect families, because illness may lead to job loss and the consequent loss of coverage. Lost jobs, of course, also leave families without health coverage when they are at their financially most vulnerable.

Finally, illness often leads to financial catastrophe through loss of income, as well as high medical bills. Hence, disability insurance and paid sick leave are also critical to financial survival of a serious illness.

Thanks to NPR for airing a report mentioning this study.