Is the Hospital Bill the Least of Our Problems?

The statistics have drawn attention over the years: Some 60 percent of Americans who file bankruptcy do so as a result of medical bills; and roughly 75 percent of those actually have insurance. So stated the American Journal of Medicine in 2009 as it highlighted the findings of a study by researchers at Harvard and Ohio universities.

Large-scale studies tend to lag by a few years—the 2009 study used data from 2007—so in, say, 2014 we might know a little more about the realities in 2012. But after five years of bruising recession in Las Vegas, some attorneys say that medical bankruptcies were probably never on par with the big national claims.

Nevada leads the nation in overall bankruptcies, and if it trends lower than the national numbers in the percentage stemming from medical bills, that may be because there are so many other ways to lose it all. The nation’s worst foreclosure rate, highest unemployment and highest credit-card delinquency can lead to medical bankruptcies, but they create plenty of bankruptcies on their own without any help from the hospital, says Delwyn Webber of Rob Graham & Associates. Filings here are driven not by health care but by homes, jobs and plastic. Even gambling addiction has a bigger sway in bankruptcy filings than medical bills, says Zach Larson of Marquis Aurbach Coffing.

While the AJM study found that even insured Americans were hit hard by medical bankruptcies, Larson says the real problems come along when businesses hobbled by the economy can no longer secure health insurance for themselves and their employees.

“Do I see medical issues? Yes. Are they bad? Yes. But the bottom line in my practice is it’s more about how do [businesses] keep insurance during the duration of their financial problems.”