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Families struggle to pay medical bills, survey finds

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More than a quarter of U.S. families are burdened by having to pay for medical care, and almost one in six struggle to pay health care bills, federal researchers reported on Tuesday.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act is designed to reduce the burden by getting health insurance to more Americans. But the report from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that even families with health insurance can struggle to pay bills.

"In 2012, 26.8 percent of families in the United States experienced any financial burden of medical care, the NCHS team writes in its report. "Almost 1 in 6 families (16.5 percent) had problems paying medical bills in the past 12 months." And nearly nine percent said they had medical bills they couldn't pay at all.

The NCHS team looked at results from a large national survey of more than 43,000 families covering 108,000 people.

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Having kids often leads to large medical bills, the report finds. "One in three families with children (36 percent) experienced any financial burden of medical care, the team reported. This compares to 25 percent of families with two adults and no children.

Families with a mix of insured and non-insured members seemed to have the worst time paying bills. The survey found trouble paying bills among 46 percent of families in which some members had insurance—for instance, a child covered by the Children's Health Insurance Program but whose parents had no insurance. And 40 percent of families with no health insurance at all reported financial burden.

(Read more: Obamacare enrollment rises)

Even in families where everyone had private insurance, medical bills often caused hardship, with 21 percent reporting financial burden from medical care.

Other reports have shown that costly illnesses trigger about half of all personal bankruptcies in the United States and that 26 percent of U.S. women had trouble paying medical bills in the United States in 2009-2010.

By Maggie Fox of NBC News

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