Struggles With COVID Left Many Americans With Medical Debt

MONDAY, May 1, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- While COVID-19’s toll on health and wellness has been obvious, the virus has also hit people in the wallet.

A new study links surviving COVID to financial challenges later, especially for folks who were hospitalized with the virus.

“More than half of Americans now report having had COVID-19, and more than 450,000 have been hospitalized, so the potential number experiencing serious financial issues linked to their experience with the virus is high,” said Dr. Nora Becker of the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, in Ann Arbor.

Compared to people whose financial health was measured before the virus, those who had COVID-19 were more likely to have bills so overdue that they were sent to a collection agency. They were also more likely to have a low credit score.

To learn more, researchers from University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore linked health care records and financial records of more than 132,000 people in Michigan. Patients' identification was removed.

About 42% of patients who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 had a low credit score six months later, the study found. That compared to 34% of a similar group who hadn’t yet required a hospital stay for COVID-19 but later needed one.

The gap was smaller, but significant, between the two groups of non-hospitalized patients.

About 27% of the patients who had been hospitalized for COVID-19 later had medical debt sent to collection agencies compared with 19% of the comparison group. Researchers again found a small but significant gap for non-hospitalized patients.

The team also noted significant increases in non-medical debt sent to collection agencies after COVID-19 hospitalization.

The study’s financial snapshot was from credit bureau data for January 2021. The researchers adjusted for economic status and vaccination rate in the areas where patients lived. All of the patients had commercial insurance.

“While we cannot tell from our data exactly how linked these financial outcomes are with the aftermath of infection, we know that others have shown the impacts of COVID-19 infection on the short- and long-term ability to work,” Becker said in a Michigan Medicine news release.

“Further research in this area is crucial in order to figure out how to design policies to protect COVID-19 survivors from financial harm,” she added.

Becker and her colleagues noted that pandemic-related economic policies have expired in the United States. These included food and rent assistance as well as no-cost coverage for testing, outpatient medication and hospitalization.

The study findings were published online recently in the Journal of Hospital Medicine.

More information

The Pew Research Center has more on the financial impact of COVID-19.

SOURCE: Michigan Medicine, news release, April 27, 2023

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