More Americans facing high healthcare costs

Tue Dec 12, 2006 7:32pm ET19

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A growing number of Americans are devoting a large share of their paychecks to healthcare, and some are skipping medical care because of it, researchers reported Tuesday.

In 2003, 48.8 million Americans younger than 65 lived in a household that spent more than 10 percent of the family income on healthcare, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That figure was up by 11.7 million from 1996.

Low-income families were among those most likely to devote a large share of income to healthcare, the study found. Other groups with higher-than-average financial burdens included people living in rural areas, adults between the ages of 55 and 64, and people with chronic health conditions.

In addition, more than half of Americans with health insurance that wasn't from a group plan spent at least 10 percent of their family income on healthcare -- a rate nearly three times that of Americans covered by employer-sponsored health plans.

Not unexpectedly, people with higher personal costs were more likely than other Americans to put off medical care for financial reasons. For people in poor health, this could have "severe consequences," the study authors report in Wednesday's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The findings are based on data from federal health surveys conducted in 1996 and 2003. Each one questioned a nationally representative sample of Americans -- 19,022 adults younger than 65 in 1996, and 28,970 in 2003.

Drs. Jessica S. Banthin and Didem M. Bernard of the health department's Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality estimate that in 1996, nearly 16 percent of Americans -- or roughly 37 million people -- spent more than 10 percent of the family income on healthcare. That included money paid toward insurance premiums as well as direct medical expenses.

By 2003, that percentage had grown to more than 19 percent, or 48.8 million Americans, the researchers found. Of these, 18.7 million spent more than 20 percent of their paycheck on healthcare.

Americans in this latter group spent an average of $5,794 on healthcare in 2003, according to Banthin and Bernard, which was more than twice the average for all Americans younger than 65. Moreover, 5 percent said they had delayed or skipped medical care because of money.

The findings also underscore the high healthcare expenses of Americans who get health insurance on their own rather an employer, the researchers point out. Other studies, they note, have found that the non-group health insurance market is "small, volatile and subject to potential market failures."

People in non-group plans, the researchers add, tend to have much higher healthcare costs than people with any other type of insurance, and even those who lack insurance altogether.

SOURCE: Journal of the American Medical Association, December 13, 2006.



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