Medical Bankruptcy is Real, Even if the Washington Post Refuses to Believe it

The Washington Post has broken new ground, calling a presidential candidate a liar for citing a statistic from research published in the world's leading public health journal. The Post's Fact Checker column labeled Bernie Sanders a "three pinocchio" level liar for saying that 500,000 Americans are bankrupted by medical bills each year. Sanders' statement relied on research that we and three colleagues published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). Dozens of politicians and publications (including the Post itself!) have cited that study as a reliable source.

Our AJPH study was part of an ongoing research effort by the Consumer Bankruptcy Project (CBP). For decades, the CBP has been surveying debtors about the causes (including medical ones) and consequences of their bankruptcy. In our 2019 research, 37.0% of bankrupts "very much" agreed that medical bills were an important factor, while another 21.5% "somewhat agreed". Many others cited lost wages due to illness, and overall, two-thirds cited illness-related bills, income loss or both. As we wrote in the AJPH, that's ". . . equivalent to about 530 000 medical bankruptcies annually." That figure is in line with estimates based on our earlier CBP studies (carried out with then-Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren and sociologist Deborah Thorne), which were published in leading medical and policy journals.

But even the 530,000 figure is an underestimate of the number of people affected by medical bankruptcies. Most bankruptcies involve more than one person - an average of about 2.7 people, often including a spouse/partner and children. That means that the 750,000 bankruptcies last year involved more than 2 million people. And even if you use the most restrictive definition of medical bankruptcy - i.e. including only debtors who "very much" agreed that medical bills were a cause of their bankruptcy - Sanders' 500,000 figure is, if anything, too low. The right number is more like three quarters of a million.

And our studies aren't the only indictor that many American families suffer a crushing burden of medical bills. A Nobel Prize winner was forced to sell his medal to pay medical bills. More than 250 000 people sought to raise funds for medical bills through GoFundMe campaigns last year. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, medical bills account for more than half of all unpaid bills sent to collection agencies. And in a New York Times/Kaiser Foundation survey, more than one quarter of respondents said they or someone in their household had a problem paying medical bills, and of them, 11% said they’d declared bankruptcy due, at least in part to medical bills.

So why did the Fact Checker claim that Sanders told a whopper? That claim rests on an econometric study that found only a modest uptick in bankruptcy filings among persons hospitalized in California between 2003 and 2007. But that study appeared tailor made to undercount medical bankruptcies. As we and Elizabeth Warren noted in our response to it in the New England Journal of Medicine, it excluded most people who were frequently hospitalized (a group that's at high risk of medical bankruptcy); it assumed that anyone not hospitalized could not suffer medical bankruptcy (even though people who aren't hospitalized in the course of a year account for four-fifths of all out-of-pocket medical bills); that no one is bankrupted by bills for a child's or partners' care; and that potentially bankrupting illnesses never start before the moment of hospitalization - an assumption contradicted by the study's own data.

Yet despite these flaws, the economists behind the study insisted (and the Post believed) that their math was a more reliable indicator of what caused financial ruin than the testimony (and court records that we've used as cross-check) from the thousands of debtors surveyed and interviewed by the CBP.

At this point everyone agrees that many thousands of Americans suffer medical bankruptcies each year, but there's still scholarly debate over exactly how many; economists and business school professors (including some funded by the health insurance industry) generally offer lower estimates, and medical and legal researchers find higher numbers. We'd be happy to see the Post report the facts and nuances of that debate. But instead it's chosen a side and labeled those on the other side - researchers, public figures who cite their research, and the debtors who shared their painful stories - "liars".

David U. Himmelstein, M.D. and Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H. are both Distinguished Professors of Public Health, City University of New York at Hunter College and Lecturers in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and the founders of Physicians for a National Health Program.