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Health care cost issues still linger as pandemic slows

Health Care and Health Insurance
by Josh Hammerquist
Health care cost issues still linger as pandemic slows
Health care cost issues still linger as pandemic slows

The U.S. isn't particularly close to being out of the woods when it comes to getting the novel coronavirus pandemic under control, but the nation is certainly getting there. With lockdowns proving somewhat effective at corralling the virus in recent months and a slow but steady vaccine rollout in most states, things are improving.

However, for many Americans, the risks associated with going to work or the supermarket are improving, but financial concerns associated with health care very much are not. The cost of health care, insurance and prescription drugs, along with concerns over losing coverage, still dominate many consumers' minds.

A recent Gallup poll showed these issues top the list of things people believe President Joe Biden should be trying to tackle in his first 100 days in office. Indeed, 70% favor action to reduce health insurance premiums, 66% want similar efforts related to bringing down drug costs, and 63% would like to see efforts that reduce the national uninsurance rate.

Those issues marginally outpaced worries about expanding care for older Americans (cited by 58%) and expanding child care options for working parents (55%).

However, on all these issues and more, relatively few people actually believed the country was moving in the right direction. For instance, only 8% believe the country is moving correctly to bring down health care costs, and the same is true of just 12% related to drug costs. Furthermore, only 27% believe the country is taking proper action to manage the pandemic.

Health care costs are still front of mind for many Americans.Health care costs are still front of mind for many Americans.

A closer look
A big part of the reason people were concerned about their health amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and, likely, their ability to pay for treatment if necessary — is highlighted in a recent survey of Massachusetts residents by the state's government.

It found that more than half of respondents say they are forced to work outside their homes during this time, and that demand disproportionately affected residents in lower income brackets. For instance, while well over half of people making at least $100,000 annually were able to work from home, only about 1 in 4 people making less than $35,000 per year had the same luxury.

Meanwhile, 20% of those low earners delayed medical care since the beginning of July. In many cases, they did so because of cost. In fact, concerns about cost (or that their insurance wouldn't cover the treatment) ranked fourth among all reasons for delayed urgent care, specifically. This issue ranked behind only having the appointment canceled or delayed by their care providers, lack of ability to get an appointment, and worries about coming down with COVID as a result of in-person treatment.

Also, throughout the pandemic, many Bay Staters lost their jobs, and as a result encountered major financial concerns independent of their health care.

Not a surprise
Those numbers certainly align with long-term trends seen in the U.S. as a whole, including the fact that many Americans facing financial strife simply skip doses of doctor-prescribed medications.

The latest CoverMyMeds Medication Access Report, conducted in September and October, found that 36% of people who have at least one prescription have skipped out on needed medications to pay for other essential expenses. This was true for close to half of all non-white respondents.

In addition, 43% of those polled said they have done the opposite: Forgoing other essentials in life because they wanted to pay for their medications. Here, too, 56% of non-white respondents fell into this category. Finally, 41% of people with prescriptions said they have altered their doses or skipped them entirely, against doctor's orders, to make them last longer — that included 53% of racial minorities.

Overall, the number of prescriptions seen in the entire country dropped 12% from 2019 to 2020, and childhood immunization rates declined 75% annually. Perhaps not surprisingly, 65% of patients responding to the survey said they faced financial impacts from the pandemic.

Similar findings
Meanwhile, about 1 in 3 Americans told the Urban Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that they had skipped medical care during the pandemic. Most often, this was out of concern over the coronavirus or because of a lack of available appointments, more so than cost.

However, lower-income respondents were more likely to skip out on care, the poll showed, and that included treatments for children. Meanwhile, about a third of adults who skipped treatments for any reason said they saw their health problems get worse because of that decision.

Certainly, health care costs are something underwriters and care providers need to be acutely aware of, and efforts to better educate consumers about how to get the lowest-cost, most effective treatment they can could be vital to ensuring they stay healthy in the long run.

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