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Study finds 56% of U.S. adults have faced hardship due to medical expenses


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J-P Mauro - published on 05/06/19 - updated on 05/06/19

The American Cancer Society warns that this hardship may only increase in the future.

A new study released by the American Cancer Society cites the number of American adults who have been put into a position of hardship by high medical bills at 137 million. This is more than half of the adult population of the U.S..

The study appeared on the Journal of General Internal Medicine website. Of those reporting medical financial hardship, the most common problems mentioned were struggling with affordability, stress, or delaying care because of cost.

The effects of high out-of-pocket spending were seen harshest on adults of working age, ages 18 to 64 years. The results of such a system have led to financial destitution, high medical debts, and great stress over the possibility of financial ruin. Those who put off treatment may find that illnesses can reduce productivity and limit household income.

While there have been numerous studies that seek to identify the monetary strain cancer treatment can have on personal finance, this is one of the first studies to focus on general-practice medicine, apart from oncology. For this latest study the research team, led by Robin Yabroff, Ph.D, observed three areas of financial distress: the material (e.g., problems paying medical bills), the psychological (e.g., worry about medical bills) and the behavioral (delaying or forgoing medical care because of cost).

Using data from the 2015-2017 National Health Interview Survey, researchers determined:

56.0% of adults reported at least one domain of medical financial hardship, representing 137.1 million adults in the United States. Compared with those 65 years and older, adults 18 to 64 reported higher material (28.9% vs. 15.3%), psychological (46.9% vs. 28.4%) and behavioral (21.2% vs. 12.7%) medical financial hardship.

Among adults aged 18 to 64, a correlation was found between lower levels of education and the intensity of such hardship. Those who were uninsured were twice as likely to report financial hardship than those with public or private insurance plans. Women were also found more likely to report multiple domains of hardship than men.

Unfortunately, this trend towards medically based financial hardship is only expected to increase. In their conclusion, the researchers made a grim prediction for the future of medical costs:

Medical financial hardship is common in the USA, especially in adults aged 18–64 years and those without health insurance coverage. With trends towards higher patient cost-sharing and increasing health care costs, risks of hardship may increase in the future.
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