A popular online meme that came out earlier this year pointed out that over 500,000 Americans declare bankruptcy because of medical bills each year, and it was often used to criticize the medical and financial institutions of the United States. According to a recent fact check performed on the claims behind the meme, the numbers may not be exact but appear reasonably accurate. The larger issue surrounding the viral spread of the meme online is the misguided criticism of the United States bankruptcy code. In reality, many Americans are able to use U.S. bankruptcy protections to regain control of their finances after incurring excessive medical debt that was necessary to save their own life or the life of a loved one.
Putting the relatively insignificant dispute over the exact numbers aside, both the source of the popular meme and the fact checkers who wrote the article agree that more personal bankruptcies are filed to address medical debt in the U.S. each year than over any other source of debt. The reasons for this vary, but medical debts may result in so many bankruptcy filings because they are rarely secured by collateral, can increase very quickly to reach levels that are impossible for many debtors to pay off, and are often incurred while patients are suffering from medical problems that prevent them from working. According to a 2013 congressional report cited in the article, over 640,000 medical bankruptcies were filed in American courts in 2013. Many of these cases resulted in large amounts of medical debt being discharged.