Americans continue to struggle with healthcare access and affordability, straining their pocketbooks and pushing the healthcare system to the brink, according to a flurry of studies released last week during Cover the Uninsured Week.
While these findings arent surprising, whats notable is that healthcare costs, and the worries that go along with them, seem to be only growing worse while access seems to be shrinking for the poor.
In a dramatic example of the lengths to which people will go for health insurance, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 7% of people surveyed said they or someone in their household got married in the past year so they or their new spouse could get health benefits. Another 23% took a new job or stayed in a job rather than move on mainly because of better health benefits.
Peoples economic worries and their healthcare worries are interrelated, said Mollyann Brodie, vice president and director of public opinion and media research at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Whats changed recently, said Brodie, is that a worsening economy, higher gas and food prices and the mortgage meltdown are heightening stress and pushing healthcare out of reach for many Americans. Paying for everything is problematic, she said.
Some 44% of the 2,003 adults surveyed by phone in early April for the poll said they have problems paying for gas. And 28% said they have problems paying for healthcare and health insurance. A total of 61% of respondents reported that they had a serious problem with at least one financial issue, including paying for gas, getting a good paying job, paying for healthcare, food, gas, credit card debt or their rent or mortgage. Some of the people surveyed listed themselves as being affected in more than one category and the Kaiser report did not break down those who cross-listed.
The problem extends to the middle class; 28% of those earning between $30,000 and $75,000 annually reported that they have a serious problem paying for healthcare because of the worsening economy.
Healthcare costs are growing rapidly relative to wages. Health insurance premiums are increasing 10 times faster than income, according to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Nationwide, the amount workers pay for family coverage rose 30% from 2001 to 2005, while family income rose by just 3% over the same period, the foundation said.
This trend is expected to continue, said Lynn Blewitt, director of the State Health Access Data Assistance Center at the University of Minnesota, who led the RWJF study, adding that escalating gas and food prices now are competing with healthcare costs to eat up peoples income.
The stress that goes along with these economic woes is likely contributing to chronic disease, according to the ongoing Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Of 46,000 full-time workers surveyed by phone, every day since January 2008, nearly two-thirds were either obese or overweight, two-thirds had at least one chronic health condition and more than 20% said they couldnt perform regular duties on one or more days in the past month because of illness. In general, we find that misfortunes tend to reinforce each other, said Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus at Princeton University.
The situation is getting worse for low-wage earners. Over the past decade, healthcare disparities have grown between low-wage and higher-wage earners, reported the Commonwealth Fund in two studies. Approximately 19 million full-time workers and dependents are uninsured, and 11 million others who work full time are in public programs such as Medicaid, costing U.S. taxpayers $45 billion a year in program funding and uncompensated-care costs, the authors reported.
Uncompensated care is a really inefficient way to provide care, said Sara Collins, assistant vice president of the Commonwealth Funds Program on the Future of Health Insurance. Its a strong argument for getting everyone in the system.