Cost of Health Care Keeps 46 Million Americans From Seeking Treatment

Cost of Health Care Keeps 46 Million Americans From Seeking Treatment

Nearly a fifth of US adults unable to pay for necessary health care
A sick woman

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for quality health care and workers who administer that care. But medical treatment comes at a high cost, which is often unaffordable to many in the U.S.

For example, nearly a fifth (18%) of U.S. adults wouldn’t be able to afford quality health care if they needed it today, according to a Gallup poll of nearly 4,000 Americans conducted Feb. 15-21, 2021 — Gallup notes that this comes to around 46 million people. That same percentage (18%) said that they or someone in their household have skipped medical treatment in the past year due to cost concerns.

The solution? The majority of Americans support enacting government legislation — including expansion of the Medicare program — to make health care more affordable.

Black Americans less likely to be able to afford health care

About one in five Americans said they wouldn’t be able to pay for quality health care if they needed it today — this is a daunting statistic on its own, but even more concerning when you look at the demographic breakdown. Black Americans are nearly twice as likely as white Americans to be unable to afford necessary medical treatment:

  • Americans overall: 18%
  • Black Americans: 29%
  • Hispanic Americans: 21%
  • White Americans: 16%

Black Americans were also the most likely demographic to lose health insurance coverage amid the coronavirus pandemic. Without insurance, the upfront cost of medical care may be higher, which may deter patients from seeking necessary treatment.

35% of low-income earners skipped medical care due to money

When health care costs are high, consumers are forced to choose between going into debt for medical treatment or skipping potentially necessary care. About one in five (18%) U.S. adults said that they or a household member have skipped seeking treatment for a health problem in the past year due to cost concerns.

This trend is much more prevalent among those with the least money to spare. More than a third (35%) of adults earning less than $24,000 annually have skipped medical treatment in the past year, while high-income earners are much less likely to need to skip medical care due to cost.

bar graph comparing the percentage of people who’ve put off health treatment due to cost of care based on annual household income

Households cut back on spending to pay for health care

While many U.S. adults choose to skip medical treatment because they can't afford it, that’s not always a choice. Patients with chronic conditions or people who need emergency medical care don’t have a choice but to foot the bill for medical expenses. And health insurance alone costs Americans nearly $6,000 per year on average, according to 2021 ValuePenguin research.

Households are slashing their budgets in order to pay for health care costs, the Gallup poll found. It’s true that many consumers are cutting back on discretionary spending, but they’re also finding ways to save on necessary expenses. About one in eight (12%) are even cutting back on food spending to make up for the cost of health care.

Here’s where consumers have reduced spending in order to pay for health care costs:

  • Recreational or leisure activities: 35%
  • Clothing: 26%
  • Food: 12%
  • Over-the-counter drugs: 11%
  • Utilities: 9%

Unsurprisingly, low-income earners are forced to cut spending at the highest rate to cover their health care costs. About a quarter of adults with a household income of less than $24,000 had to cut back on food spending, and half of them reduced spending on recreational or leisure activities.

Medical cost reduction policies have broad bipartisan support

Skipping medical care can have long-term effects on the health and financial well-being of Americans. For example, missing a cancer diagnosis can lead to a progression of the disease, making it more difficult (and expensive) to treat. This is a burden on individuals, as well as the U.S. economy at large. One solution would be to regulate health care expenses on a federal level.

While the exact figures vary across party lines, the majority of Americans support government policies that keep medical costs low:

  • 60% support making Medicare available to everyone.
  • 65% support lowering the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 60.
  • 85% support setting caps on out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare patients.
  • 88% support setting caps on prescription drug costs for Medicare patients.

Government policies aimed at expanding Medicare eligibility, potentially to include Americans of all ages, will ensure that patients can seek care regardless of their ability to afford another medical bill.

Methodology: Gallup conducted this survey from Feb. 15-21, 2021, with 3,753 adults, ages 18-plus, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia as a part of the Gallup Panel. Gallup started the Panel in 2004 to measure how U.S. adults feel about pressing issues.

The samples in this poll were weighted to correct for unequal selection probability and non-response, with the demographic weighting targets based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for those in the U.S. population, ages 18 and older.

Erika Giovanetti is a personal finance reporter whose work has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, CNBC, CBS News, Fox Business, the Today Show and many more. Erika is passionate about helping consumers make informed decisions with their money. She specializes in personal loans, consumer debt, budgeting and spending, medical billing, predatory lending and finance apps.