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Health care costs are so high that 98 million Americans say they’ve had to cut spending on food and gas

August 4, 2022, 8:10 PM UTC
A woman grocery shopping in California
Nearly 40% of Americans are reducing spending on groceries and gas to pay for health care costs.
Frederic J. Brown—AFP via Getty Images

Gas and groceries aren’t the only necessities costing more these days. In an effort to accommodate higher health care costs, Americans have been delaying or skipping treatments altogether. According to a new survey from West Health and Gallup, 38% of Americans, or roughly 98 million people, cut back on food, gas, utilities, and other costs to pay for health care expenses in the past six months. 

The poll, which was conducted in June 2022 when inflation reached a 40-year high of 9.1%, included 3,001 adults from all 50 states and the District of Columbia as part of the Gallup panel.

“It’s a double-edged sword when you’ve got general inflation, which is curtailing consumer behavior, and then you’ve got health care inflation, which is only half as great, but it’s still a lot higher than it’s been on average in recent years,” says Dan Witters, senior researcher at Gallup. “And of course, health care is expensive to begin with. We’ve been measuring and tracking the burden of the cost of care on American adults now for four years, and this is one more chapter in that story.”

While tradeoffs were higher in lower-income households with more than half of those earning less than $48,000 annually making cuts, nearly 20% of higher-earning households (those making more than $180,000 a year) were forced to cut back on spending as well. The survey also found that 36% of women under 50 cut back on medical care and medicine compared to 27% of men under 50.

“We found that females were disproportionately impacted by the high cost of health care,” says Timothy A. Lash, president of West Health. “We also know from other evidence that females utilize health care at a higher rate and unfortunately we still have gender inequality in terms of income, so it’s not surprising that there’s a higher impact of health care costs there.”

Health care inflation climbed to 4.5% in June 2022 and is split into two categories: “medical care commodities” and “medical care services.” Higher prices are driving one in four Americans, or 26%, to avoid both medical care and prescriptions altogether.

“Health care inflation simmered down after President [Barack] Obama signed the Affordable Health Care Act into law back in 2010 compared to the early 2000s, but it’s higher now,” explains Witters. “It’s getting hoisted up by everything we’re seeing around us, and it’s always going to be a bit of a trailing indicator because a lot of these prices are built into annualized contracts. It’s reasonable to postulate that health care inflation is going to continue to increase, particularly in 2023 or into the new fiscal years when contracts get renegotiated. I think the worst is yet to come.”

While there is legislation on the table to reduce health care costs, there’s little faith among the respondents that any change will actually happen with nearly 60% of the adults polled being “not at all confident” and 35% saying there were “not too confident” that their own elected representatives to Congress would take action to lower health care costs in the near future.

“We’re going to see in the midterms that health care is very much on the ballot along with the entire continuum of health care rights, health care practice, and health care costs,” says Lash. 

To that end, he recommends holding elected officials more accountable, taking personal responsibility to use websites and apps that allow you to comparison shop when it comes to prescriptions and discussing lower-cost alternatives for treatments with health care providers.

“We talk a lot about pandemics in terms of COVID or monkeypox as public health emergencies,” says Lash. “With this sort of ubiquitous impact, it’s the high cost of health care that has become a public health emergency in and of itself.”