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1 in 5 struggle to pay medical bills, but it's getting better

Just about one in five U.S. families struggle to pay medical bills, a number that’s come down just a little bit over the past year, federal researchers have found.

They found that 20.3 percent of people aged under 65 are in families that had trouble paying a medical bill during the first half of 2012. That’s down from 21.7 percent in the first half of 2011, the team at the National Center for Health Statistics found.

The numbers are important as the United States moves through health care reform. The 2010 Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, is designed to get more people covered by health insurance and, in theory, to take away some of the burdens of paying for health care.

Robin Cohen and colleagues looked at data from large national surveys for their report. People 65 and older are excluded because they all have the right to coverage by Medicare, the federal health insurance plan for the elderly.

But a full quarter of those who had public health insurance such as Medicare or Medicaid struggled with medical bills, the survey found.

“In the first 6 months of 2012, among persons under age 65, 36.3 percent of those who were uninsured, 14 percent of those who had private coverage, and 25.6 percent of those who had public coverage were in families having problems paying medical bills in the past 12 months,” they wrote in the report, available here.

Just last month, researchers found that having cancer raises people's risk of bankruptcy, even if they have insurance.