• indigent care;
  • medical debt;
  • health services utilization;
  • access to care

BACKGROUND:  Health care providers are increasingly relying on collection agencies to recoup charges associated with medical care. Little is known about the prevalence of this practice in low-income communities and what effect it has on health-seeking behavior.

METHODS:  Cross-sectional survey at 10 “safety net” provider sites in Baltimore, Md. Specific queries were made to underlying comorbidities, whether they had a current medical debt, actions taken against that debt, and any effect this has had on health-seeking behavior.

RESULTS:  Overall, 274 adults were interviewed. The average age was 43.9 years, 77.3% were African American, 54.6% were male, 47.2% were homeless, and 34.4% had less than a 12th grade education. Of these, 46.2% reported they currently had a medical debt (average, $3,409) and 39.4% reported ever having been referred to a collection agency for a medical debt. Overall, 67.4% of individuals reported that either having a current medical debt or having been referred to a collection agency for a medical debt affected their seeking subsequent care: 24.5% no longer went to that site for care; 18.6% delayed seeking care when needed; and 10.4% reported only going to emergency departments now. In the multiple logistic regression model, having less than a 12th grade education (odds ration [OR], 2.5; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.0 to 6.0) and being homeless (OR, 4.1; 95% CI, 1.4 to 12.3) were associated with a change in health-seeking behavior while having a chronic medical condition (OR, 0.2; 95% CI, 0.1 to 0.5) and going to a community clinic for usual care (OR, 0.2; 95% CI, 0.1 to 1.0) were protective.

CONCLUSIONS:  Aggressive debt retrieval for medical care appears to be indiscriminately applied with a negative effect on subsequent health-seeking behavior among those least capable of navigating the health system.