Nobel laureates are an exceptional group, but even they can't escape a common American problem: medical bills.
Leon Lederman, a physicist who received the Nobel Prize in 1988 as part of a team that discovered the "God particle," died Wednesday at age 96. Lederman had memory-loss problems and died at a nursing home in Idaho, according to the Associated Press.
In 2015, he sold his prize at auction for $765,000 to help cover medical bills, the AP reported.
Medical bills, especially in later years, can be crushing — and most people don't have something as valuable as a Nobel Prize to sell to pay off their debts.
One in five working-age Americans with health insurance reported having difficulty paying medical bills in a 2016 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the New York Times. Just over 60 percent said they had used up most or all of their savings, and 42 percent took on extra jobs or worked more hours to pay their debts, according to the report.
Medicare may offer some relief from routine medical bills, but there's no escape from medical costs. Medicare plans still have co-pays and other cost-sharing for medications and doctor visits.
Nursing-home care in particular can be a major expense for families because it is not covered by Medicare.
A private nursing-home room costs an average of $253 a day or $7,698 a month, according to the U.S. Department of Health. People who spend their life savings may eventually qualify for Medicaid, which will help cover the cost of a nursing home.
Lederman made his prize-winning discoveries at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago, and served as its director in the 1970s and 1980s.
He isn't the only Nobel laureate to auction off his gold medal. Physiologist Alan Lloyd Hodgkin auctioned off his prize, as did scientists James Watson and Francis Crick, who co-discovered the structure of DNA.
The prizes have fetched anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, according to a 2016 NPR report during the period when the mathematician John Nash's prize was being auctioned.
The AP described Lederman as "a giant in his field who also had a passion for sharing science," and said his memory problems became more severe in 2011.