Understanding the Impacts of Medical Debt
Insights from Focus Groups with Atlanta Residents
RIP Medical Debt (RIP) recently partnered with The Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement (ARCHI) to explore the effects of medical debt on the lives of people living in Atlanta. The findings were recently released in Understanding the Impacts of Medical Debt on Atlantans which explores their perceptions of medical debt and its causes, steps Atlantans have taken to resolve the debt, their interactions with providers and collections agencies, and what it would mean to have their debt abolished.
Medical debt is increasingly a source of stress and strain for many Atlantans, particularly disadvantaged communities. In 2022, the Urban Institute estimated that 14.5 percent of people living in Fulton and DeKalb counties were carrying medical debt, amounting to more than 181 million being owed. Healthcare debt is the No. 1 reason people file for bankruptcy and it prevents people from accessing necessary healthcare in the future and leads to emotional and psychological harm.
RIP Medical Debt and ARCHI engaged PerryUndem to conduct focus groups with moderate- and low-income Atlanta residents who have and/or had medical debt. Groups were segmented by race and ethnicity to learn about different experiences with medical debt and understand intersections with structural racism. Interviews included participants with different health coverage situations like employer-sponsored health insurance, Medicaid and uninsured.
Key findings from the report about how medical debt impacts Atlanta residents include:
- Medical debt causes mental health anguish. The debt weighs on people, and many say they experience anxiety and depression because of it.
- Many times debt impacts people of color more often. In the focus groups, people of color said they believe their communities are more impacted by medical debt. Some say it is because structural racism makes it harder for them to obtain health coverage and good paying jobs. Hospitals and insurance companies tend to treat them differently too, according to some participants, and can be aggressive in pursuing payment from their communities.
- Debt puts health at risk. Many share how they delay or skip medical care because they fear incurring new debt or worry the hospital won’t treat them until they pay the bill.
- Everyone wants relief. If their medical debt was paid, they say it would be one less worry in their life. They could gain some peace – which most lack currently – and it would help them obtain some level of financial stability.