Sick Americans Worry About the Cost of Their Healthcare

Many Americans who have been sick or injured over the last year worry about the high cost of healthcare, and struggle to ensure that their care is appropriate, according to a new poll by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), National Public Radio (NPR) and Harvard School of Public Health.  RWJF commissioned the poll to enhance understanding of Americans’ experiences and attitudes towards the cost and quality of medical care.

Fully 87 percent think the cost of care is a serious problem.  Approximately two-thirds – 65 percent — believe the cost of care has soared over the last five years.  In addition to the general public, the poll studied sick Americans’ experiences with and perceptions of the costs and quality of medical care.  “Sick Americans” (27 percent of adults surveyed) are defined as those who said they had a serious illness, medical condition, injury, or disability requiring significant medical care or who had been hospitalized overnight in the past year.

Many sick Americans had problems with the cost of their own medical care.  More than 40 percent reported that the cost of their medical care has caused a “very serious” (20 percent) or “somewhat serious” (23 percent) problem for their finances.  They also reported that expensive healthcare costs affected their ability to access care.  One in six sick Americans could not get the medical care they needed (17 percent).  Among the sick Americans who could not receive care, 52 percent report that it was because they could not afford the needed care, and 24 percent say it was because their insurers refused to pay for it.  Finally, 11 percent of sick Americans said they had been turned away by a doctor or hospital for financial or insurance reasons when they tried to receive care.

One of those people is Fresno, CA resident Amber Cooper, who has health insurance from her job in the accounting department of a small manufacturing company.  Then the company changed their insurance plan.  According to Cooper, “We were in a conference room…and I had heard rumors but didn’t know if it was true, and I started crying in front of everyone and actually had to excuse myself to gather myself together and go back in.  Unfortunately, the rumors had come true with potentially devastating consequences for Cooper, who had a liver transplant at the age of 10 and takes a medication twice a day so her body won’t reject her liver.

Every year my company changes the insurance.  And instead of giving us three different choices for insurance plans, they were changing to one, which was a high-deductible plan with no prescription coverage,” she said.  Cooper was devastated.  Her anti-rejection medicine costs more than $1,000 a month, a price that she could not afford to pay on her own.

Cooper found help at the HealthWell Foundation, which pays for her medication.  Still, she can’t afford the $300 monthly blood test to make sure she’s not rejecting her liver.  “It is scary because the only way to tell if you’re going to go into rejection is by the blood work.  Your numbers will be a little bit crazy, and then the doctors will be like, ‘OK, you need to get in and we need to check you out and make sure you’re OK.’  So I really took a risk not getting that blood work done.  But I couldn’t afford to get it done. I really couldn’t,” she said.

Cooper isn’t alone.  Health insurance has been changing noticeably “beneath the surface,” said Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research group. “In plain language, it’s becoming skimpier and skimpier and less and less comprehensive.  This affects not only how people seek healthcare — they’re more reluctant to get it if they can put it off.  But it also affects family budgets in a very real way, especially as we’re still coming out of recession and families are still crunched by a weak economy,” Altman said.

Paul Fronstin of the Employee Benefit Research Institute says this is a national trend.  “Deductibles have gone up. Co-pays have gone up.  You see cost-sharing for out-of-network services have gone up,” Fronstin said.  “It seems to have accelerated in the last few years.  Healthcare is just continuing to take a bigger bite out of take-home pay.”  According to Fronstin, the economy is causing more companies to cut back on coverage because of the math: It’s the only way they can keep up with rising healthcare costs.  “Employers are trying to manage those costs.  They’re trying to keep those cost increases as close to inflation as possible.  And they’re doing everything they can to get their workers to think twice about the healthcare that they are using,” Fronstin said.

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