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Americans borrow $88 billion annually to pay for health care, survey finds

Posted at 6:44 AM, Apr 02, 2019

Americans borrowed a staggering $88 billion in the past year to pay for health care, a new survey finds.

About 1 in 8 had to resort to borrowing to afford care in the previous year, according to a West Health-Gallup survey released Tuesday. Also, 65 million adults say they had a health issue but didn't seek treatment due to cost. Nearly a quarter had to cut back on spending to pay for health care or medicine.

"Not only do you have a real significant number that are deferring care, forgoing care altogether, you also have a big chunk that are getting the care but having to borrow to get it," said Dan Witters, Gallup senior researcher. "There are few Americans out there who are safe from the American health care cost crisis."

These statistics are the latest examples of how the nation is struggling with the high cost of medical care. The United States spent more than $10,700 per person on health care in 2017, federal data shows. That's more than any other country, yet America consistently ranks near the bottom of major health indices among developed nations, the survey said.

Reducing spending on care -- particularly prescription drugs -- has become a key talking point for President Donald Trump and lawmakers on both sides of political aisle. The President has taken steps and offered many proposals to curtail costs, while Congress has held hearings and worked on legislation to do the same. They are looking at soaring insulin prices in particular, after families have said they've lost loved ones who could not afford their treatment.

"Particularly in today's political climate, all too often, we are focusing on the policies and legislation and not the problem that needs to be solved," said Tim Lash, chief strategy officer for West Health, a nonprofit group seeking to lower health care costs for seniors.

But most of these efforts are on the margins, experts say.

Americans are not that hopeful, either. More than three-quarters expect their costs to increase even more in the next two years, the survey found. And more than two-thirds of Democrats and Republicans are not confident that elected officials will be able to achieve bipartisan legislation to reduce costs. Many of their experiences and concerns cut across party lines.

"There's a real pessimism about anything getting better that has infiltrated the American psyche," Witters said.

The situation has left people feeling very insecure. About 45% of Americans said they are concerned that a major health event will leave them bankrupt, including 1 in 3 families earning at least $180,000, according to the survey.

And more than three-quarters are concerned or extremely concerned that rising health care costs will result in significant and lasting damage to the economy. Overall, Americans spend $3.5 trillion on health care, which accounts for nearly a fifth of the economy, according to federal data. Spending is expected to rise to $5.6 trillion in 2026.

The federal government and lawmakers are hoping to make the cost of health care more transparent in an effort to lower prices. Few Americans say they know the cost of emergency room visits or outpatient surgery before receiving care, according to the survey. And only about a third discuss the price of medicine, medical procedures or treatment plans with their doctors.

The views on health care are not all gloomy. Nearly half of people feel that the quality of care in the United States is the best or among the best in the world. And nearly two-thirds say they are completely or mostly satisfied with their personal experiences with the medical system.