Context: Policymakers as well as physicians need to understand how rapidly rising health care costs are affecting specific groups of patients.
Objective: To estimate the number and characteristics of individuals in the United States faced with very high financial burdens for health care.
Design, setting, and population: Data from a nationally representative sample of civilian, noninstitutionalized US individuals younger than 65 years from the Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys were used to calculate 2 measures of financial burden as a function of tax-adjusted family income. Total burden included all out-of-pocket expenditures for health care services, including premiums. Health care services burden excluded premiums and, when applied to the insured population, was used to identify the underinsured. We defined the underinsured as insured persons with health care service burdens in excess of 10% of tax-adjusted family income.
Main outcome measures: Total and health care services burdens exceeding 10% and 20% of family income in 1996 and 2003.
Results: In 2003, there were 48.8 million individuals (19.2%) living in families spending more than 10% of family income on health care, an increase of 11.7 million persons since 1996. Of these individuals, about 18.7 million (7.3%) were spending more than 20% of family income. In 2003, individuals with higher-than-average risk of incurring high total burdens included poor and low-income persons and those with nongroup coverage, aged 55 to 64 years, living in a non-metropolitan statistical area, in fair or poor health, having any type of limitation, or having a chronic medical condition. Applying our definition of underinsured to the insured population, an estimated 17.1 million persons younger than 65 years were underinsured in 2003, including 9.3 million persons with private employment-related insurance, 1.3 million persons with private nongroup policies, and 6.6 million persons with public coverage.
Conclusions: Our analysis identifies patients at greatest risk of health-related financial burdens that may adversely affect their access and adherence to recommended treatments. Our study also highlights the high costs associated with nongroup health insurance policies.