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Surge in Americans skipping medical care due to cost, Gallup says

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Nearly a third of Americans — triple the share since March— say they've skipped medical care for a health problem in the previous three months due to concerns about the cost, according to a new study from Gallup and West Health. 

High medical costs are even impacting higher-income Americans, with 1 in 5 households earning more than $120,000 annually saying they also have bypassed care, the research shows. That's an almost seven-fold increase for higher-income families since March. 

The surge in Americans who avoid medical care because of financial concerns comes as COVID-19 cases are flaring across much of the nation and after many people had put off seeking routine care during the initial phase of the pandemic. Now that more are catching up on doctors' visits, they are facing often onerous costs. Some health expenses have increased in the past year, such as prescription medications, with drug prices outpacing inflation. 

Skipping treatment can have dire outcomes, and the survey found that almost 13 million Americans know a friend or family member who died because they couldn't afford medical care. And 20% of adults say they or someone in their household has had a health issue worsen after postponing care because of its price.

When six figures isn't enough

"American tend to think there is a group of lower-income people and they have worse health care than the rest of us, and the rest of us, we're OK," said Tim Lash, chief strategy officer for West Health, a nonprofit focused on lowering health care costs. "What we are seeing now in this survey is this group of people who are identifying themselves as struggling with health care costs is growing."

He added, "It's moving beyond those who might be considered average or lower income relative to the national mean, and moving all the way up to those making over $120,000."

About 23% of Americans say that paying for health care represents a major financial burden, with that figure reaching a third for people who earn less than $48,000 a year. Out-of-pocket costs like deductibles and insurance premiums have been rising, taking a bite out of household budgets. 

"We often overlook the side effect of cost, and it's quite toxic — there is a financial toxicity that exists in health care," Lash said. "We know when you skip treatment, that can have an impact on mortality."

Medical bills largest source of U.S. debt, study says 04:23

From 2009 to 2020, medical bills were the largest source of debt in the U.S., with a record $140 billion owed last year, according to a July study from the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

"Broken" medical system

Among those experiencing financial pain from health care is Angie Korol, who participated in the Gallup-West Health study. The researchers spoke with more than 6,000 people in September and October about their concerns and experiences with affording health care treatment. 

Korol, of Gresham, Oregon, said her family is covered by her husband's employer-based health care, but that they pay insurance premiums of about $2,200 a month for herself and their child. 

"It's not great for our budget," said Korol, 40, an accounting student. "We're making it, but some months are scraping by our teeth." 

Korol said she'd opted to delay medical care in the past. Prior to the pandemic, her family was on the state's Medicaid program — and she was worried that legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act would eventually again permit health insurers to snub people with pre-existing conditions. 

As a result, Korol delayed getting a diagnosis for an autoimmune disorder for more than a year. Now that she's received a diagnosis, she's facing a two-month delay to see a rheumatologist due to strong patient demand. 

"It shouldn't take two months to get into the rheumatic arthritis person," she said. "It makes me feel worried, because what if it takes longer the next time?"

The medical system "is broken," Korol added. 

High costs, low value

Americans are increasingly skeptical that they're getting their money's worth when it comes to medical care, the study found. About 52% adults said their most recent health care experience wasn't worth the cost, up from 43% in April. Overall, 9 in 10 Americans say people are paying too much for the quality of health care they are receiving. 

"If you survey consumers, people want to believe we have the best care and therefore get the best value," Lash said. "People are opening their eyes to the fragility of the medical system and its inability to solve all problems for us."

The U.S. health care system "outperforms" on cost — Americans pay more for medical care than citizens of any other developed nation — but "by just about every other measure, like life expectancy, infant mortality, you name it, we're at the bottom," Lash said.

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