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Sanders on medical debt

“I get a little bit tired — I must say — of people defending a system, which is dysfunctional, which is cruel … 500,000 people going bankrupt for what reason, they came down with cancer?” 

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders claims 500,000 people go bankrupt every year from medical debt. That’s approximately two-thirds of the 750,000 total bankruptcies per year.

Sanders’s claim is based on a study published by the American Journal of Public Health in March. The researchers surveyed debtors and asked about factors that contributed to their bankruptcies. Forty-four percent said either medical bills or loss of work related to illness “very much” contributed; 22 percent said either medical bills or illness “somewhat” contributed. Combining both groups of respondents, the study estimated 530,000 bankruptcies a year.

The study doesn’t establish that all 530,000 bankruptcies were caused by medical bills, as Sanders describes it. It is broader than that, since it measures contributions — not causes — factors in both illness and medical bills, and respondents who said either “somewhat” and “very much.”

A different study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the same question of medical bankruptcies and found that the rate was far lower: 30,000 to 50,000 a year. However, this study was limited to non-elderly people in California who were admitted to the hospital for non-birth-related reasons, so it covers only a subset of all people facing medical debt.

The research team Sanders cited once included Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who contributed to earlier versions of their study when she was a Harvard professor. Interestingly, though, Warren doesn’t appear to make the same claim about 500,000 medical bankruptcies a year.

We recently gave Three Pinocchios to Sanders for this claim, and his campaign sharply criticized our fact check.

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Twelve candidates are on stage tonight at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, outside Columbus. The debate, hosted by  CNN and the New York Times, starts at 8 p.m. Eastern; the Fact Checker is writing on the candidates’ claims here.

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