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The Medical Bankruptcy Myth

Each year many Americans find themselves facing bankruptcy through no fault of their own. The American Journal of Medicine reported in 2009 that medical bills contributed to more that 60 percent of U.S. personal bankruptcies. A catastrophic medical condition can wipe out savings, assets, and even cause loss of income.

The study conducted by researchers from Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School and Ohio University found that more than 75 percent of these bankrupt filers had some form of health insurance, two-thirds were homeowners, and three-fifths had gone to college. Many of the debtors were average middle-class families who saw their lives tossed upside-down after a serious illness.


"Our findings are frightening. Unless you’re Warren Buffett, your family is just one serious illness away from bankruptcy," said lead author Dr. David Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

While medical expenses can lead to bankruptcy, the federal law requires the debtor to include all debts in a bankruptcy case, including auto loans, mortgages, and credit cards. A “medical bankruptcy,” when the debtor only discharges medical debt, is a myth. The bankruptcy laws do not allow the debtor to pick and choose which debts are included and which are excluded. Debts are treated fairly and equally in bankruptcy, and the debt classes are structured to avoid preferential treatment of one creditor over another within the same class.

For example, a hospital and a credit card company are generally classified as unsecured creditors and will receive the same treatment during the bankruptcy. If there are no assets available to pay these debts, both debts are discharged at the end of the case. However, while a debt may be discharged and no longer legally enforceable, the debtor may always voluntarily repay the creditor.

If your family is faced with high medical expenses, consult with an experienced bankruptcy attorney and discover your options. The federal bankruptcy laws can discharge your medical bills and provide a fresh start on a better financial future.