Got surprise medical bills? So do 400,000 others

More than 400,000 residents in New Jersey reported getting large, unexpected medical bills over the course of a year, a new statewide poll found.

"Surprise" medical bills, or unexpected costs following a procedure, ER visit, doctor's appointment or other treatment, has been at the forefront of discussions among New Jersey health care providers, insurers, advocacy groups and legislators for the better part of a decade.

According to results from the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy Health and Well-Being Poll, one in seven New Jersey adults polled reported that family living with them received a large, surprise medical bill last year.

The rate was even higher-one in five-among lower income families, minority populations, people who reported being in poor health and those with less than a high school education.

"It is a myth that everyone gets medical care regardless of ability to pay," said Joel Cantor, director of the health policy center. "Bill collectors are coming after you, it can hurt your credit rating and it's associated with bankruptcy. Of course, if you're sick and can't work, that impacts your income, and it becomes a vicious cycle."

"A surprise bill of a couple hundred dollars can throw families off, especially if they are living paycheck to paycheck," he said. "If you're at a higher income, you can absorb that more easily, but a large bill to that person might be a couple thousand dollars. We see the bigger impact among people with less capacity to absorb the financial shock."

A federal consumer report found that 20 percent of Americans have at least one medical debt collection item in their credit reports.
The Rutgers poll, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, interviewed 1,052 residents by phone from Oct. 12 through Nov. 19.