In the last five years, 34 million Americans watched as someone they knew died after they couldn’t afford medical treatment, according to a survey report that Gallup and West Health published Tuesday.
That means 13% of Americans personally knew someone who died who didn’t get the medical care they knew they needed because they couldn’t afford it.
Reflecting the deep disparities in the economy and the health care system endured by racial minorities and low-income people, nonwhites and the people who earn the least money were about twice as likely to report knowing someone who died under these circumstances, the survey reveals.
Twenty percent of nonwhite respondents reported knowing someone who died because of unaffordable health care, twice the share of white people. Similarly, 19% of those living in households with incomes below $40,000 annually had this experience, compared with 11% of those earning $40,000 to $100,000 and 9% of those with higher incomes.
Americans older than 65 were the least likely to report knowing someone in this situation, perhaps reflecting Medicare’s universal coverage of retirees. Among adults ages 18 to 44, 17% said they knew someone who died because of high health care costs, more than the 12% of those 45 to 64 and 7% of people older than 65.
“It’s outrageous in the United States that so many people have lost a family member or friend simply because the cost of health care is so high,” Tim Lash, chief strategy officer for West Health, said in a news release. “It is a tragic statement on the state of health care in America.” The polling company Gallup and West Health, a consortium of nonprofits focused on lowering health care costs for older Americans, polled 1,099 U.S. adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in September.
The Affordable Care Act reduced the national uninsured rate to a historic low via a Medicaid expansion, the availability of private health insurance coverage regardless of preexisting conditions and the creation of subsidies for low- and middle-income people. Last year, 8.5% of U.S. residents, or about 28 million people, were uninsured, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But that law didn’t stop U.S. health care providers and drugmakers from charging the highest prices in the world. In addition, a growing number of Americans who have private health insurance face high out-of-pocket costs, such as deductibles that require the insured to spend thousands of dollars out of pocket before coverage benefits kick in.
Those are among the reasons why 45% of Americans were “underinsured” last year, meaning patients are left responsible for a larger share of their medical expenses than they can afford, according to a survey by the Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based research institute. Among those underinsured Americans, 41% delayed medical care because of cost and 47% reported trouble paying medical bills.
High bills for medical care not covered by insurance led Americans to borrow $88 billion from February 2018 to February 2019, a separate Gallup-West Health survey report published in March shows. Almost 6 in 10 of Americans who filed for bankruptcy from 2013 to 2016 cited medical bills as a factor, according to survey results reported this year in the American Journal of Public Health.
This story has been updated to clarify that the survey’s findings relate to people who said they knew someone who died “after” skipping health care due to cost, not necessarily “because” they didn’t get treatment they needed.