Medical debt and aggressive debt restitution practices: Predatory billing among the urban poor

Thomas P. O'Toole, Jose J. Arbelaez, Robert S Lawrence

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


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 internal [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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)772-778
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of General Internal Medicine
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2004



  • Access to care
  • Health services utilization
  • Indigent care
  • Medical debt

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine

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