Recession takes toll on health care, say researchers

doctor explaining diagnosis to his female patient. iStockphoto

The "Great Recession" affected more than just the economy but health care as well, according to the authors of a new research letter.

A letter published online on Jan. 7 in JAMA Internal Medicine (formerly called Archives of Internal Medicine) said that physician's visits, drug fills, and inpatient stays dipped across all African Americans, Hispanics and whites from before the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009 to during the recession.

The hardest hit were African Americans and Hispanics, according to the researchers, led by Karoline Mortenson, an assistant professor of health services administration at the Maryland Population Research Center in College Park, Md. During the recession, unemployment rates for African Americans and Hispanics (14.8 and 12.1 percent, respectively) were much higher than whites (8.7 percent), the authors wrote. Median wealth also fell 66 percent for Hispanic households and 53 percent for African American households but just 16 percent for white households. Rates of employment-based health insurance also declined more for minorities than whites, due to 25 percent of African Americans and Hispanics losing their jobs, compared to 15 percent of whites.

Researchers looked at a sample of 54,007 people who were part of the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) from 2005 to 2006 and 2008 to 2009. Non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic African Americans and Hispanic peoples between the ages of 18 to 64 were included.

The average number of office-based physician visits during the 2-year pre-recession time period from 2005 to 2006 for African Americans and Hispanics were significantly lower than whites (5.75, 4.51 respectively compared to 7.34). The numbers declined slightly to 6.95 for whites, 4.14 for Hispanics and 5.29 for African Americans during the recession.

Prescription drug dropped for whites from 14.08 fills from the pre-recession period to 13.44 fills during the recession. Fills also dropped from 8.40 to 8.09 for Hispanics and 12.93 to 12.74 for African Americans.

African American inpatient stays dropped as well, and there were slight decreases for inpatient doctor stays for both Hispanics and whites which were not deemed statistically significant.

The number of emergency room visits stayed the same for whites and Hispanics, and declined 0.01 for African Americans.

"Although minorities bore the brunt of the recession in terms of losses in employment, income, and insurance, our findings suggest that trends in use patterns were similar across race and ethnicity," concluded the authors. "The only evidence of ethnic disparities is the statistically significant finding that Hispanics reduced office-based physician visits more than whites during the recession."

This isn't the first report to suggest people affected by the recession are skipping out on necessary medical care.

A previous Gallup poll released in December 2012 of more than 1,000 U.S. adults showed that 32 percent of Americans said they put off medical care for themselves or a family member because of cost. It was the highest number since Gallup tracked the statistic 12 years ago.

In addition, an earlier Consumer Reports study showed that 45 percent of adults under 65 passed on getting their prescriptions filled, and 63 percent didn't go to the doctors when they were sick to save money.

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