If  you’re struggling with medical debts you can’t pay, you’re not alone. In 2012, Americans paid more than $21 billion toward overdue health care bills, and this debt didn’t happen overnight. The financial burden of healthcare costs is a gradual but growing problem, and it has a variety of potential causes and solutions.

Leading causes

To figure out exactly why Americans are having so much trouble paying their medical bills, let’s explore a few of the most common triggers.

Economic recession

After the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, Americans faced high rates of debt and unemployment that continue to echo into today’s economy. Approximately 39% of pension plans still haven’t completely recovered from the recession, and wages haven’t risen at the same rate as inflation, so many American patients are still trying to catch up with other expenses.

Rising healthcare costs

Health Care costs and health insurance premiums are rising at faster rates than ever before, widening the gap between those who can and can’t afford basic care. Diagnostic and preventative treatments cost more for insured and uninsured patients alike, and some health care providers further inflate their rates because of malpractice insurance and tuition debts.

Billing errors

Even as healthcare costs continue to climb, some patients are saddled with additional debts that could be completely preventable. According to Kaiser Health News, almost half of all Medicare claims in 2013 were inflated by billing errors. As a result, federal agencies paid 26.4% more than they should have. Billing discrepancies and insurance issues affect patients too by charging more than the accurate amount.

Longer lifespans

Technological and scientific advancements have turned the world into a safer, healthier place for most Americans. Medical progress has added years to the average life expectancy, which is now 81 for women and 76 for men. However, with additional years come additional expenses, especially when these lives are extended solely by the power of expensive medical treatments and procedures.

It doesn’t help that some Americans are underestimating the number of years they’ll live. According to the Society of Actuaries, 40% of people between the ages 45 and 80 make plans and predictions that are at least five years shy of their actual lifespans.

Lingering results

What happens as a result of these debts? The effects of medical debt are vast in scope, affecting individuals, family, the economy, and American society as a whole.

Federal legislation

Medical expenses lead to devastating debt, but they also discourage or prevent people from seeking diagnostic and preventative care in the first place. This is such a significant problem in the United States that President Barack Obama has actually turned it into a pivotal part of his presidential legacy. Since the Affordable Care Act was implemented in 2013, more than 8 million Americans have received health insurance for the first time.

This federal mandate, though controversial, incorporates tax incentives and insurance industry regulations to make health insurance more accessible and affordable. For example, it offers tax credits to reduce premiums for low-income patients, and prevents insurance providers from inflating or refusing coverage to people with preexisting conditions. However, health insurance coverage is no guarantee that costs will be manageable.

Bankruptcy claims

In 2013, census and courtroom data revealed that medical debts were the new leading cause of bankruptcy filings in the United States. Healthcare costs are now a greater financial burden than credit card bills, mortgages, or any other big expenses. This upends previous notions that debt is always the result of poor planning or unnecessary spending, because healthcare is a basic need and health problems can’t always be predicted.

These bankruptcies also prove that medical debt doesn’t discriminate; it affects those who have insurance coverage and above-average incomes, too. In fact, as a result of high deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums, millions of insured Americans receive medical bills they can’t afford to pay every single year.

Retirement delays

According to a recent Wells Fargo/Gallup poll that analyzed Americans with retirement savings, at least one in five tap into their retirement funds early because they need extra cash. As if the economic recession didn’t do enough damage to investment portfolios, unexpected medical expenses are increasing the financial burdens of pre-retirement life, and delaying retirement as a result.

Of course, healthcare costs rise even more as people age, so these delays aren’t solely a product of people withdrawing from their 401(k) plans. The same people must also anticipate additional healthcare costs during retirement, which raises the minimum amount they’ll need to support themselves on a fixed income.

Medical tourism

The high cost of healthcare is driving some Americans to seek healthcare abroad. It’s estimated that over 1 million Americans will travel outside the U.S. for medical care in 2014. Many countries like Mexico, Thailand, and India offer state-of-the-art medical care for up to 75% less than it would cost in the United States. The rise of medical tourism is globalising the healthcare market, giving Americans the option to reduce their risk of medical debt.