December 31, 2013

A Year of Tuesdays: 2013's Final Number

I've checked it several times, just to be sure I had counted things right. This year there were five months with five Tuesdays and seven months with four, giving us a total of 53 Tuesdays. I think this can only happen when the year begins and ends on the third day of the week, but I'm really not all that good with science, astronomy, or time.

So now that we've landed on the final Tuesday of the year, it's time to recap the totals for Tuesday's Number, my weekly post on financial fallout - judgments, satisfied judgments, and bankruptcies - where the person owes the money to a hospital, doctor, or other medical provider.

Each week this year, I've presented the numbers without bias. I have no idea what the circumstances are for the folks who end up in these pages of The Post-Standard, whether they're insured, under-insured, or uninsured; or whether they 'self-inflicted' to end up here, by keeping money that should have been paid to their medical provider, for example, or by refusing health insurance when they could have had coverage.

Call me nostalgic or sentimental or silly, but generally I believe in the better nature of most folks and that they'd rather pay their bills than not, that they'd rather take responsibility for themselves than not and that they'd rather avoid making this list if they could. And regardless of the individual dollar amount of the judgment or bankruptcy, I can only imagine the impact on the families. $5000 is a ridiculous amount of money when you don't have much, just as $25,000 is a ridiculous amount of money even if you have some -- it's all relative.  For those handful or so of people who had six-figure filings, regardless of how much money you have, that's a huge ax to have hanging over your head.

That being said, here are the horrible - and I do mean horrible - numbers for the Syracuse area for 2013:
  • 1,279: the combined number of people listed. Some could be duplicates - meaning they could have started out in the judgments section and moved to the satisfied judgment and/or bankruptcy columns. That's an average of about 24 each week.
  • $25,679,738: the total of all judgments filed. These are the ones that are over $5000, which are the only ones that make the paper (except for one week early in the year when it was an all-encompassing list). 
  • $2,447,163: the total of all satisfied judgments. That's less than 10% of all judgments filed.  
  • $1,375,358: the total of all bankruptcies filed where the primary creditor is a medical provider of one kind or another. 
That's a total of $29,466,259, an average of $555,967 each week this year.  Per listing, it's an average of just over $23,000. One more week, and we would have crossed the $30 million mark -- a benchmark I hope we never see.

How does 2013 compare to 2012, when I captured only 24 weeks of data?

  • Average number of listings per week is up by 1 this year
  • Average weekly total is up $70,161 higher this year
  • Average per listing is up $1,763 this year.

Folks, we're going in the wrong direction, aren't we? Until we start seeing the percentage of judgments satisfied go up, we're hurting. Until we see the judgments filed go down, we're hurting. And until we see the health care related bankruptcies disappear, we're hurting.

I see this number in my own backyard and I wonder what it must be for the rest of New York, for the rest of the country. For those families who didn't self-inflict, I have a hard time imagining what it must feel like having that hanging over their heads. And knowing that all of the local hospitals offer some sort of financial assistance programs, and knowing how many government safety net programs there are, I wonder how much worse this really could be.

And I continue to wonder what it will take for us to get out of the kind of mess that causes or allows this to happen. What's broken here, the actual cost of health care? How people make health care choices? Our overall economy? Will the Affordable Care Act, with millions more having some kind of insurance (through private carriers or government programs), make a difference? One can only hope.

We'll see what next year brings -- I've got my spreadsheets ready.

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