A recent survey by private health insurance exchange EHealth highlights the increasing pressure and frustration felt by American families over medical bills.
The survey found that more than 6 in 10 people say they’re more worried about the financial effect of expensive medical emergencies and paying for healthcare, than about funding for their retirement or saving up for their kids’ college education.
People who get health insurance both through their jobs and on their own have seen the costs rise dramatically over the last decade.
According to the Commonwealth Fund, a New York think tank, annual increases in work-based health plan premiums rose three times faster than wages from 2003 to 2013. Out-of-pocket costs have also increased.
“More people have deductibles than ever before,” says Sara Collins, a Commonwealth Fund vice president. From 2003 to 2013, the size of deductibles has grown by nearly 150 percent, according to the study.
The financial, physical, and even emotional challenges are proving to be many for families coping with pricey everyday medical costs.
“Because of my condition I had to give up my job,” said 47-year-old Brian Tieber, who is now in remission after battling advanced-stage cancer in 2012. Tieber is insured under a health plan from his wife’s employer, which offers comprehensive coverage for the intense, expensive cancer treatments. The health plan is still a huge financial burden for him and his family, he said.
Bradley Konia, 46, takes just one prescription medication but pays for his health plan out of pocket. Konia worries about unexpected medical expenses if we were to become sick or require a second prescription drug.
“If something were to happen,” Konia said, “I would be in a bad situation.”
For most of the decade, healthcare costs have been eating up a growing share of the family budget, said Paul Fronstin, director of the Health Research & Education Program with the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
“It’s affected their ability to pay for basic necessities,” he added.
Studies by the Health Research & Education Program have consistently found that workers paying for healthcare have increased their credit card debt, and also cut back on retirement and other savings.
Though much has been made of a slowdown in the rate at which US healthcare costs have risen recently, the trend has not yet translated into total financial relief for patients.
“The overall cost to everybody has slowed, but one of the reasons they’ve showed is that there’s been a shifting of costs to patients,” said Paul Ginsburg, director of public policy at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics.
“We’re receiving a backlash, because there is only so much pressure you can put on consumers,” said David Newman, executive director of the Health Care Cost Institute, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization based in Washington DC.
Certain cost-lowering tools are being currently tested in the US healthcare system, attempting to relieve families’ financial strain.
For instance, the healthcare industry is under pressure to be more open about what it charges for services, and a growing number of online tools—including improved marketplaces and price finder tools like guroo.com, FairHealthConsumer.org, and HealthBlueBook.com—are available to help patients shop more efficiently.
Still, though patients are being pushed to be more aware of costs, openness about pricing in healthcare remains more theory than reality.
“Relief from high medical expenses will ultimately need to come from inside the healthcare system,” said Newman.
Pressure to disclose health care prices is likely to cause doctors to be more price-conscious when suggesting treatments and cause employers and insurers to reshape health plans in ways that would lower costs, he continued.
Though some health experts hope for relief from skyrocketing insurance costs, many acknowledge that won’t happen anytime soon.
“There’s a long way to go,” said Ginsburg.
(With reports from Los Angeles Times)
(LA Midweek April 1-3, 2015 Sec. A pg.1)