Patient advocates & public health leaders rally around proposed investment to alleviate medical debt in Pennsylvania

New study indicates medical debt associated with worse health status, underscoring importance of legislative proposals in Pennsylvania to alleviate financial burden of disease

March 6, 2024

HARRISBURG, PA – March 6, 2024 – As state lawmakers consider proposals that aim to reduce the financial impact of disease on patients and families, a new study from the American Cancer Society (ACS) shows that medical debt is associated with worse health status, more premature deaths and higher mortality rates.

Researchers with the ACS have found that medical debt was associated with more days of poor physical and mental health, more years of life lost and higher mortality rates for all-cause and leading causes of death at the county level in the United States. The study was published earlier this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open.

The results showed, on average, 19.8% of the population in a county had medical debt in collections. After adjusting for county-level sociodemographic characteristics, one percentage point increase in population with medical debt was associated with 18.3 physically unhealthy days and 17.9 mentally unhealthy days per 1000 people during the past month; 1.12 years of life lost per 1,000 people; and 7.51 per 100,000 person-years in age-adjusted all-cause mortality rate. Associations of medical debt and elevated mortality rates were consistent for all leading causes of death, such as cancer, heart disease, and suicide.

In Pennsylvania, there are several approaches being considered to reduce the toll of medical debt in residents’ lives, including a proposal in Governor Shapiro’s Executive Budget to invest $4 million to wipe out as much as $400 million in Pennsylvanians’ medical debt.

“The costs of cancer care are out of reach for many Pennsylvanians, which may lead to delayed treatment and impossible choices between accessing life-saving healthcare services and covering the costs of everyday basic needs, like putting food on the table for their families,” said Donna Greco, Government Relations Director for American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) in Pennsylvania. “Medical debt is bad for patients’ health, and is the leading policy priority for cancer patients and survivors. The latest ACS study underscores the importance of advancing legislative proposals that relieve Pennsylvanians of crippling debt that may discourage them from seeking the treatment they need to survive and thrive. ACS CAN looks forward to working with lawmakers and advocates in addressing this need in Pennsylvania.”  

Last week, ACS CAN delivered a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they support the Governor’s investment—to help make a dent in the number of Pennsylvanians struggling with medical debt, which currently affects 57% of state residents.


About ACS CAN  

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) advocates for evidence-based public policies to reduce the cancer burden for everyone. We engage our volunteers across the country to make their voices heard by policymakers at every level of government. We believe everyone should have a fair and just opportunity to prevent, detect, treat, and survive cancer. Since 2001, as the American Cancer Society’s nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate, ACS CAN has successfully advocated for billions of dollars in cancer research funding, expanded access to quality affordable health care, and advanced proven tobacco control measures. We stand with our volunteers, working to make cancer a top priority for policymakers in cities, states and our nation’s capital. Join the fight by visiting


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