WASHINGTON -- Denise Wall, a Fresno-area schoolteacher with more than $2,000 in medical bills, was outraged to hear she could get free care if she quit her job and enrolled her family in Medicaid.
Brenda Bartlett, a factory worker in Nebraska, was so angry about $2,500 in medical bills she ran up using the coverage she got at work that she dropped insurance altogether.
"They don't give a rat's butt about people like me," she said.
Sue Andersen, burdened with nearly $10,000 in debt through her family's high-deductible plan, had to change jobs to find better coverage after learning she and her husband earned too much for government help in Minnesota.
"We are super middle class," she said. "How are we stuck with everything?"
Health insurance -- never a standard protection in the U.S. as it is in other wealthy countries -- has long divided Americans, providing generous benefits to some and slim-to-no protections to others.
But a steep run-up in deductibles, which have more than tripled in the last decade, has worsened inequality, fueling anger and resentment and adding to the country's unsettled politics, a Los Angeles Times analysis shows.
Many wealthy Americans -- already reaping most of the benefits of the last decade's economic growth -- have weathered the dramatic increase in deductibles in recent years in part by putting away money in tax-free Health Savings Accounts.
Very poor Americans, millions of whom gained coverage through the 2010 Affordable Care Act, can see a doctor or go to the hospital at virtually no cost, thanks to Medicaid, the half-century-old government safety-net program.
Squeezed in the middle are legions of working Americans who face stagnant wages, insurance premiums that take more and more of their paychecks and soaring deductibles that leave them with medical bills they can't afford.