Healthcare costs raise serious concern among general public

Eighty-seven percent of Americans surveyed in a new poll conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), NPR and Harvard School of Public Health think the cost of U.S. healthcare is a serious problem. And two-thirds of respondents said the problem has gotten worse in the past five years.

In addition to surveying the general public, the poll also studied the perceptions and experiences of sick Americans on the cost and quality of care they received. For the purposes of the study, “sick Americans” (27 percent of adults surveyed) were defined as those who said they had a serious illness, medical condition, injury or disability requiring a lot of medical care or who had been hospitalized overnight in the past 12 months.

“People are really worried when they are sick about cost-of-care issues and they see these issues getting worse,” said Robert Blendon, study leader and professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard University School of Public Health. “What is really important is the perception of people who are sick is that they are financially vulnerable from rising costs.”

Blendon noted the study was conducted as a way to present a "picture in time" of how the current state of U.S. healthcare is affecting the average person. But it remains to be seen how that understanding can be translated into action to help solve the problem of runaway costs.

“I think people will be receptive to ideas people have about solving these problems,” Blendon said. “But it is important to note is that the country is divided about how to deal with this problem. They are not divided over whether we have a problem.”

The quality of healthcare was also a major concern for poll respondents. Nearly three out of five people – 57 percent – believe the quality of healthcare is a serious problem for the country. Nearly four-in-five (78 percent) said not being able to afford to get the tests or drugs they need is a major reason for quality problems, while 64 percent said the influence of health insurance plans on treatment decisions is a major reason for quality problems.

For people who are sick, the financial barriers to getting access to care are quite pronounced for those without health insurance. Forty percent of sick people who were uninsured at some time in the past 12 months said there was a time when they needed medical care but could not get it. In comparison, only 10 percent of those who were sick and who had health insurance for the entire 12 months said they could not access needed care.

“The rising cost of medical care affects everyone, but people who have been unwell know firsthand that an illness or injury can mean financial hardship or ruin,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and CEO of RWJF, in a press release announcing the poll results. “These findings confirm how thinly individuals and families have been stretched. Having access to high-quality, affordable, comprehensive health coverage is crucial, but we know that even with insurance, rising healthcare costs leave many Americans with the burden of higher out-of-pocket spending.”

Blendon noted, however, that the results of the poll were not all doom and gloom. “Of the people who received care in the last year, the majority were very happy with the quality of the healthcare they received, so this not a horrible picture.”

At the same time, though, he noted one telling statistic.

“It shocks me when you see that one-in-ten people who are seriously ill saying they are turned away by some physician or hospital due to either financial or insurance reasons,” he concluded. “It’s not the majority of people but those are the kind of findings you don’t want to see.”

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