For the first time in a decade, the number of people struggling to pay their medical bills has started to decline, according to a new survey released on Thursday by the Commonwealth Fund. The researchers attributed the historic drop to the number of people gaining insurance under the health care reform law.
Between 2012 and 2014 — as Obamacare’s main coverage expansion took effect — the Commonwealth researchers found that the number of people who had issues paying for health treatment dropped from 41 percent to 35 percent. Over the same time period, the people who skipped out on health services because they couldn’t afford them declined from 43 percent to 36 percent:
In a press release, the researchers described the declines as “remarkable.” This marks the first time since 2005, when Commonwealth started surveying people on these questions, that the number of Americans struggling to afford medical care hasn’t increased.
“Health insurance really provides people with a financial means to get care,” Sara Collins, a vice president at the Commonwealth Fund and one of the people who worked on the study, told the New York Times. “We don’t know yet that the law is improving people’s health, but this is a first indication that people are affording care that they weren’t able to get in the past.”
Commonwealth’s findings, which also documented a drop in the number of Americans going without insurance, track closely with other surveys that have reported declines in the uninsured rate under Obamacare. The number of Americans without health care was reduced by about 25 percent last year, which means that between eight million and eleven million people have gained coverage.
The high cost of health care remains an issue for millions of Americans; according to Commonwealth, there are still about 66 million adults who reported skipping out on care last year because they couldn’t afford it. And previous studies from the organization have documented a trend in employers pushing more health costs onto their workers, leaving some Americans struggling to pay their deductibles and co-pays. Medical debt is one of the leading causes of bankruptcy in the United States.
Still, the new report provides significant evidence that the Affordable Care Act is taking steps to tackle the problem. As the New York Times reports, “financial distress was a clear target of the health law,” and Commonwealth’s data suggests that Obamacare is moving toward this goal.
That progress could be undermined, however, depending on the outcome of a pending Supreme Court case against Obamacare. King v. Burwell seeks to prevent the government from providing tax credits in the 37 states with federally-run marketplaces, essentially cutting off millions of people from affordable coverage under the health law. Previous analyses have calculated that, if federally-run marketplaces were no longer permitted to extend tax credits, the cost of insurance in those states would increase by an average of 76 percent. In some states, monthly premiums could jump by nearly $400.