More Americans than ever say they’ve postponed seeking care for a ‘serious’ medical condition over cost concerns

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Cost-conscious Americans and their loved ones are more likely than ever to put off medical care for a serious condition, a new survey suggests.

About one in four people (25%) surveyed by Gallup said that they or a member of their family had delayed treating a serious medical condition over the past year because of the cost — a six-point increase from 2018, and a record high for Gallup’s polling on this question dating back to 1991.

Some 33% of respondents, according to the survey conducted Nov. 1 to Nov. 14, said they or a family member had put off treatment for any condition over the past year because of cost concerns. That figure marked a four-point increase over last year and tied 2014’s record high.

“Since 2001, Gallup has tracked a near 50% increase in the percentage of Americans saying that they or a family member chose not to get medical care because of the costs they would have to pay,” the report’s authors wrote. “Such delays in medical treatment, whether for injuries, illnesses or chronic conditions, can have significant implications for the economy and healthcare system, but also the political climate.”

While there was no significant increase over the past year among middle- and upper-income households reporting they or a family member had postponed medical care for a serious condition, the share of those from annual household incomes of less than $40,000 who reported delaying care rose by 13 percentage points, from 23% to 36%.

This surge expanded the gap between the upper and lower income groups’ postponing treatment for a serious condition to 23 percentage points this year, the authors wrote, contrasting the 36% of respondents from household incomes of less than $40,000 with the 13% from those making $100,000 or more.

Another group that saw a large increase in postponing care for a serious medical condition: respondents who said either they or someone in their household had a pre-existing medical condition. That share rose by 13 points over last year, compared to a mere one-point increase among those whose households didn’t have pre-existing conditions.

The authors added a “cautionary note” that a 12-point increase since last year among Democrats and their family members pushing off treating a serious condition had accounted for much of the latest increase. In contrast, Republicans saw just a three-point increase, while independents saw a five-point increase. Self-identified Democrats are also more likely than Republicans to say they or someone in their household have a pre-existing condition, previous Gallup polling has found.

“Whether these gaps are indicative of real differences in the severity of medical and financial problems faced by Democrats compared with Republicans or Democrats’ greater propensity to perceive problems in these areas isn’t entirely clear,” the latest report’s authors wrote. “But it’s notable that the partisan gap on putting off care for serious medical treatment is currently the widest it’s been in two decades.”

Gallup’s survey provided the latest example of cost creating a barrier to medical care. For instance, a survey of renters and medical professionals published in April by Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit that works to finance and build affordable housing, found that 54% of renters reported having put off medical care because they couldn’t afford it.

Medical care those people delayed most frequently included receiving routine checkups, going to the doctor when sick and purchasing over-the-counter medication.

What’s more, severely rent-burdened respondents in that survey were more likely than renters overall to have postponed a routine check-up because they couldn’t afford it. Around 11% of U.S. households are severely housing cost-burdened, according to a report published this year by County Health Rankings & Roadmap, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute.

A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that among 910 debtors who filed for bankruptcy between 2013 and 2016, 66.5% “very much” or “somewhat” agreed that either medical expenses or illness-related work loss had contributed to their bankruptcy. Americans borrowed a collective $88 billion to cover their health-care costs over the past year, according to a survey of 3,500 adults published in April by the nonprofit West Health and Gallup.

New legislation may provide some reprieve for Americans who fear being saddled with crushing and unexpected medical costs: Congressional lawmakers over the weekend struck a bipartisan deal to help end “surprise” bills, which often arise when patients receive emergency care from out-of-network providers — including an end to billing patients more than they would pay for an in-network provider and binding arbitration to address discrepancies on bills over $750.

The White House signaled its support for the plan on Monday.