Economy

1 in 4 kids live in a family struggling with health care bills

March 8, 2012 at 7:28 AM ET

National Center for Health Statistics /

When we think of the growing burden of paying for health care, we often think of older Americans struggling to pay for medicines and procedures that can become more prevalent as we age.

But new data from the National Center for Health Statistics finds that kids who are 17 and under are the most likely of any age group they studied to be living in a family that has recently had trouble affording their medical bills.

The data, released Wednesday by the government researchers, found that about 24 percent of children ages 17 and under are living in a family that has had trouble paying their medical bills in the past year.

By contrast, just about 10 percent of people who are 65 to 74 years old were living in a family that had had problems paying medical bills in the past year.

Experts say we shouldn’t take the data to mean that kids aren’t getting the health care they need. In fact, most kids have some sort of health insurance.

An analysis of insurance coverage for children, released by the Carsey Institute last fall, found that around 92 percent of children under age 18 were covered by health insurance as of 2010.

The researchers did find that private health care coverage for kids had fallen slightly from a year earlier, but that was more than offset by an uptick in the percentage of kids who were covered under public plans such as the state children’s health insurance program.

Overall, the Carsey report found that about 36 percent of kids were covered by public plans.

“Kids’ coverage is much better than adults,” said Shana Alex Lavarreda, director of health insurance studies for the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Still, just because the kids are covered doesn’t mean that Mom and Dad have health insurance. Lavarreda said, her research has shown that in California many kids who are covered by government insurance programs are in families where the parents are uninsured.

Lavarreda said families that include children may have health care debt in part because their budgets are stretched by family bills such as child care, food, clothing and other expenses. That leaves little wiggle room for covering an unexpected illness or injury.

“There are probably compounding factors here where families with children are also those who have extra expenses,” she said. “And that puts an extra squeeze on being able to pay for other things, like medical bills.”

The CDC researchers found that nearly 39 percent of families with kids under 17 had had some financial burden from medical care, including bills that are being paid over time and bills they couldn't pay at all.

The government analysis  was based on surveys of about 52,000 people conducted in the first six months of 2011. It found that generally, the older a person gets the less likely they are to live in a family experiencing trouble paying for medical needs.

Lavarreda said Americans who are 65 or older may have more health problems and health needs, but also more wealth to use toward those bills. In addition, older Americans are likely have Medicare to help cover health expenses.

The parents of children under 17 may either not have insurance at all, or have insurance but still have to pay out of pocket.

Medical debt can affect people’s financial and personal well-being, Lavarreda said. People with medical debt are more likely to be dealing with financial problems such as bankruptcy, and also to have trouble paying for needed care such as doctor’s visits. In addition, they are more likely to end up in the emergency room seeking care, she said.

Related:

1 in 5 older Americans scrimping on health care to save money

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