Deferred care, inflation fuel mounting cost pressure for Americans' healthcare

Americans aged 50 and older are feeling the pressure of healthcare costs, with 4 in 10 concerned about their ability to pay for care and others forgoing treatment altogether, skipping prescriptions or cutting back on daily living expenses to afford healthcare.

The findings come from a survey of 6,663 U.S. adults conducted by West Health and Gallup in September and October 2021. 

Increased use of general healthcare —driven by care deferred in 2020 that was provided in 2021 — may be driving up costs, leaving Americans finding the cost burden of healthcare more extreme than what they remembered pre-pandemic. At the same time, a fragile economy and rising consumer costs are intensifying the squeeze. Healthcare costs have grown at a rate double that of Americans' incomes for decades, but inflation reaching a 30-year high and intensifying global supply chain shortages have households across every income bracket feeling cost pressures in new ways.

"Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are beginning to see the long-term impact on healthcare costs emerge," the survey states. "Significantly worsening trends uncovered in recent months underscore the urgency of the U.S. healthcare cost crisis today and the dire projections for the coming years."

"The growing burden of cost is coupled with worsening and widespread pessimism about any kind of solution or reprieve," survey authors noted. "The power for change, U.S. adults report, lies in the hands of the U.S. Congress and with American businesses. There is also a shared expectation that costs will continue to climb in the year ahead, leaving Americans resigned to the idea that the burgeoning cost crisis — which is estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 12 million Americans this year alone — will persist." 

Here are six key takeaways from the 31-page survey: 

1. The financial burdens of healthcare are especially palpable for Americans aged 50-64, who are old enough to experience health problems but too young to qualify for Medicare. Of this age bracket, 26 percent of survey respondents said they or a member of their household recently did not seek treatment because of its cost. Twelve percent of adults 65 and older said the same. 

2. Eighteen percent of Americans aged 50-64 and 11 percent of Americans aged 65 and older said they or a family member skipped prescribed medication in the last year to save money. 

3. A sizable minority of Americans aged 65 and older make daily sacrifices to afford healthcare. About 1 in 4adults in this age bracket cut back on at least one basic need to pay for healthcare, including reduced spending on food (9 percent), reduced spending on over-the-counter drugs (13 percent), cutbacks on utilities (6 percent) and reduced spending on clothing (19 percent). 

4. The financial stress and sacrifices to shore up money for healthcare was even more prevalent for Americans aged 50 to 64, with 3 in 10 forgoing at least one basic need. This includes reduced spending on food (14 percent), reduced spending on over-the-counter drugs (15 percent), and reduced spending on clothing (26 percent). Similar to the adults aged 65 and older, 8 percent of those aged 50-64 reduced spending on utilities to pay for healthcare.

5. Black Americans aged 50-64 are more likely than white Americans to report forgoing at least one basic need asked about in the survey (38 percent to 29 percent, respectively).

6. The growing burden of cost is coupled with worsening and widespread pessimism about healthcare. Nearly half of Americans (48 percent) report that COVID-19 made their view of the U.S. healthcare system worse. This percentage grows larger the younger the age group, with 58 percent of those under the age of 30 saying they feel this way compared to 38 percent of adults 65 and older.

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