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Health care remains unaffordable for about one-fifth of U.S. adults

April 2, 2021

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Dan Witters
Gallup, March 31, 2021

Nearly one-in-five U.S. adults — 18%, about 46 million people — report that if they needed access to quality healthcare today, they would be unable to pay for it. These results are based on a new study conducted by West Health and Gallup.

This current measure of healthcare unaffordability runs considerably higher among Black adults (29%) and somewhat higher for Hispanic adults (21%) than for White adults (16%). And while unaffordability of care is lower for people 65 and older than for their younger counterparts, White older adults are half as likely to report such a condition as are non-White older people (8% and 16%, respectively).

Needed Care Was Skipped by 18% of Households in Prior 12 Months

While 18% of survey respondents reported that they would be unable to pay for quality care if they needed it today, the same percentage also reported that someone in their household skipped care they needed for cost reasons in the prior 12 months. That time period covers roughly the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chances of any given household suffering from this form of healthcare insecurity are inversely related to annual household income, with 35% of respondents from low-income households — those earning under $24,000 per year — reporting forgoing care in the prior 12 months. That is five times the rate reported by those from high-income households (7%), defined as earning at least $180,000.

Reduction in Household Spending Due to Cost of Care Spans All Income Groups

With nearly one in five U.S. adults forgoing some healthcare in the prior 12 months due to the cost, many Americans are cutting back on household spending to pay for the care that they currently are receiving. About one in eight adults, for example, say they cut back their spending on food (12%) and over-the-counter drugs (11%) to pay for healthcare or medicine. The proportion doing this rises to about 1/4 of those in households earning less than $24,000 annually. Additionally, 21% of those from low-income households have had to reduce spending on utilities due to the cost of care, underscoring the disproportionate sacrifices made by lower-income households in the COVID-era.

Over one-third (35%) of respondents, in turn, report that they have reduced spending on recreational or leisure activities in the previous 12 months in order to afford care, including 21% of those in households earning at least $180,000 per year.

Majority Support Exists for Cost Containment and Broader Access Policies

As substantial percentages of U.S. adults have had to reduce spending on basic household goods to pay for healthcare, public support runs high for various proposed forms of government action meant to make healthcare more affordable.

For example, over 80% of Americans — including over 70% of Republicans — favor setting caps on out-of-pocket costs for both prescription drugs and general healthcare services for those who are insured by Medicare.

Other options are viewed quite differently by the major political party groups. While 60% of all Americans favor “making Medicare available to everyone,” support ranges from 93% among Democrats to 19% among Republicans. Similarly, 59% favor “expanding and strengthening” the Affordable Care Act; but the 98% of support among Democrats contrasts with 15% among Republicans. Slight majorities of independents endorse both proposals.


As the U.S. enters its second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery, though uneven, has also progressed with 379,000 jobs added in February, considerably exceeding projected forecasts for the month and totaling 17 million recovered jobs since April. The passage of the new $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, which was debated but not yet passed until after this survey, stands to provide additional relief to large numbers of households and businesses in need.

Despite these reasons for optimism, the cost of healthcare and its potential ramifications continues to serve as a burdensome part of day-to-day life for millions of Americans, illustrating the enduring nature of the issue as the U.S. slowly enters the closing stages of the pandemic. Over a 12-month period that roughly covers the first full year of the COVID-era, 18% of American households had to forgo some degree of needed healthcare because they were not able to afford it due to the cost. And, one year in, 18% of adults report that they would be unable to afford quality care if they needed it today. These realities can spill over into other health issues, such as delays in diagnoses of new cancer and associated treatments that are due to forgoing needed care.

The practical ramifications of widespread reductions in basic household spending to offset the cost of care are considerable and should not come with great surprise given the substantial number of Americans who suffer its effects. Dovetailing with these realities is majority support for a number of public policies currently being considered, underscoring a public that continues to remain open to government action designed to provide relief from healthcare expenses.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

We are spending almost $4 trillion per year on health care, the highest per capita spending of all nations, and yet, because of our dysfunctional health care financing system, far too many U.S. residents are facing potential financial hardship due to these costs. Although the COVID-19 relief bill will provide partial temporary relief for a portion of those affected, it is quite clear that, with the amount we are already spending, the health care financing system still needs major structural reform if we expect to provide affordable access to health care for everyone.

Perhaps the most significant finding in this survey is that the majority now supports government action to make health care more affordable. But only 19% of Republicans favor making Medicare available to everyone, and even less, only 15%, support expanding and strengthening the Affordable Care Act. And yet over 70% of Republicans favor setting caps on out-of-pocket costs for Medicare. So do they want the government involved or don’t they? Since they have come up with no reasonable alternative (medical savings accounts won’t do it), we should move ahead anyway.

U.S.-style private insurance is too expensive and inefficient, and they don’t really want that anyway based on their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Although other models exist, the most affordable, comprehensive and effective model is single payer improved Medicare for All. The Republicans can either join us or watch, but their inaction can no longer be tolerated.

Although PNHP endeavors to avoid partisan comments, partisan factions set the terms of the debate. We cannot remain silent when health care for all is our mission.

Stay informed! Visit www.pnhp.org/qotd to sign up for daily email updates.

About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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