People often imagine medical debt as something that comes from late-life catastrophic illness. But a recent study shows millennials carry a greater amount of this kind of debt than older Americans, and incur it more frequently.

In this latest study published in Health Affairs, researchers looked for trends in Census data paired with anonymized 2016 credit records for more than 4 million Americans from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Consumer Credit Panel. With these data, researchers determined whether a past-due bill originated in a health care setting or elsewhere.

They found that one in six Americans have past-due health care bills on their credit report, a debt totaling $81 billion in all. More than half of those bills — 53 percent — amount to less than $600 each. These findings are consistent with a 2017 Urban Institute report that suggested medical debt is the most common financial burden in collections in the United States, a country where health care spending amounts to 18 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

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