Medical Debt Rains Pain On Families, Even In the Sunshine State : Shots - Health News More than 30 percent of Floridians report having serious financial problems, compared with 26 percent of adults nationwide. Digging into those poll numbers shows large medical bills can be ruinous.
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Medical Debt Rains Pain On Families, Even In the Sunshine State

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Medical Debt Rains Pain On Families, Even In the Sunshine State

Medical Debt Rains Pain On Families, Even In the Sunshine State

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many Americans have discovered that having health insurance may not prevent financial hardship. That's one of the findings of a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The poll looked at the nation as a whole and at seven states, including Florida. And of all the people polled, a greater proportion of Floridians experience very serious financial problems than a nation as a whole. Sammy Mack of member station WLRN in Miami explains.

SAMMY MACK, BYLINE: At 85 years old, Alpha Edwards did not expect to be out of savings and in $3,000 of credit card debt.

ALPHA EDWARDS: So I don't do anything. I don't do anything that costs money. I can't.

MACK: The problem started four years ago. Edwards moved to Miami Springs with her little brown dog, Deucy (ph). Her husband had recently died, and Edwards wanted to be closer to her daughter. Edwards regularly sees a bunch of doctors for her chronic lung disease and her pacemaker. Not long after she moved, she needed a cardiac procedure. That's when the bills started rolling in - thousands of dollars of bills.

EDWARDS: I remember crying all day, every day. And I did call. I talked to several people.

MACK: Edwards learned that one of the specialists she was seeing didn't take her insurance. At first, while she still had a few thousand dollars in savings, she made some payments. But when the money ran out, she stopped. And she's not alone. Robert Blendon is a professor at the Harvard Chan School.

ROBERT BLENDON: People are financially overwhelmed in lives that are working OK. They have financial for their - everything else in their life, but they can't deal with this large medical bill.

MACK: Blendon says the poll found that among Floridians who've experienced serious financial problems in the past two years, 76 percent had health insurance. Consider the case of Wilson Gamboa, one of the people polled in the survey. Gamboa's got a black Suzuki C50 motorcycle in his garage, but he hasn't driven it in two years since his health insurance premiums went up by $50 a month.

WILSON GAMBOA: It's been a while. She's sitting there. I start her up regularly - you know, just to make sure the wheels keep going, the engine stays lubed - but she's sitting down there.

MACK: Gamboa is an Army reservist and owner of a pressure-washing company in Miami. Last year, his business lost money, which means Gamboa leans on his wife's nursing salary and her employer-sponsored health benefits. Gamboa considers himself lucky.

GAMBOA: If my wife wasn't working and, you know, had the job that she had, then we probably couldn't even, you know, stay afloat. So in a way, you know, we're lucky. You know, we're luckier than a lot of people. But we're trying to live the American dream.

MACK: It bothers him that they haven't been able to buy the property they were hoping to invest in. For many people, these pressures are compounded when rising copayments, coinsurance and deductibles lead to missed payments or collections. Ken Brevoort has researched medical debt for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. One in 5 Americans have medical debt on their credit reports, he says.

KEN BREVOORT: We also know that this estimate of the number of consumers with medical debt is probably an underestimate and that residual expense wound up being reported on the credit records of these consumers, and they ultimately wound up paying a price for it.

MACK: A secondary price - worse credit scores and a harder time financing things like a home. In Miami Springs, Alpha Edwards feels it every day.

EDWARDS: I lived in a three-bedroom, two-bath, two-car garage home. I went out to lunch every day during the week, and I was very social, had a lot of friends. And here, I have no social life whatsoever except with my children, of course, my daughter.

MACK: As lonely as it can be, there are more Floridians in her position than she realized. For NPR News, I'm Sammy Mack in Miami.

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