A troubling health care trend on the rise amid inflationary frustrations

The last time inflation was an issue, I was in elementary school. I vaguely remember it from watching the evening news with my dad.

At the time, inflation was driven by an oil crisis that led to long lines of cars at gas stations and my dad to trade in our four-door sedan for a fuel-efficient compact car. While there was less room in the back seat for my brother and me, the better gas mileage meant we could afford a few more groceries.

Inflation felt like a distant memory for decades, but it’s back in a big way. With consumer prices rising 9% this summer compared to the same period last year, I can’t help but wonder how this financial crisis affects patients. When costs go up but income doesn’t, discretionary spending suffers.

Unfortunately, for many families, health care falls into the discretionary realm. When people are struggling to find room in their budgets for necessities like groceries to feed their families and gas to commute to work, health care becomes an expense. These painful choices lead to deferred and delayed care, and health care spending only continues to creep higher.

there is never Good Inflation time. But as health care costs have risen steadily for decades and many people put off seeking care during a pandemic, this time seems to be an especially bad time. Benefits advisors and employers have tried to keep employee health insurance contributions more manageable by shifting cost-sharing to patients, but health care choices for patients are becoming more difficult as inflation hits consumers out of pocket. .

A shocking number of Americans have struggled to pay for care over the past decade. A recent report by KHN and NPR found that 41% of American adults have some form of health care debt. People pay for care through hospital payment plans, 401(k) loans, or by borrowing from friends and family members. As a result, some statistics describing medical debt may also be underreported. This background ignites, and inflation is a sizzling fan ready to set fire to our health care debt problems.

high cost of delayed care

As long as costs and deductibles are high, people will continue to delay and put off care that doesn’t feel strictly necessary. While a broken arm or high fever will warrant an ER or urgent care visit, more routine medical services can be put out of mind for a time.

This is dangerous math. A person with high blood pressure has few, if any, symptoms. A woman with slightly elevated blood sugar will not see a decrease in her glucose levels over time. It is only when high blood pressure leads to a heart attack or a diabetic begins to feel numbness in his or her toes that these problems manifest in a way that demands medical attention.

I have deep personal experience with the consequences of delayed care. My parents owned a restaurant in my small hometown in central Missouri. In the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis, the restaurant struggled. My parents barely made ends meet, and they saw things like going to the doctor as a luxury. I told my parents that their health was important to me and that they needed to keep seeing their doctors, but they would send me off and address my concerns.

“You are a doctor who sees sick people all day long,” he said. “That is not us. We are fine Take care of your patients – we’ll take care of ours.”

When my dad finally went to a doctor and described the symptoms he was experiencing, which included extreme thirst and needing to go to the bathroom all the time, the doctor did bloodwork. My father’s blood sugar was over 400 mg/dL (normal level is less than 100 mg/dL). The doctor prescribed some oral medicines and asked my father to keep in close touch with her.

But with the restaurant struggling, Dad figured he had better things to spend his money on (eg, gas for the truck, mortgage payments, and groceries). The Affordable Care Act wasn’t law then, and it was hard for someone with health problems like my dad to get insurance. And even if it had existed, it would have had difficulty paying its premiums.

When he finally went to the doctor — years later — the news was not good. His sugar remained incredibly high, and his kidneys were severely damaged. Things escalated in the months that followed, and he was on dialysis within a year. Three times a week, he had to go to the hospital and be connected to machines for three or four hours at a time.

The restaurant closed a few months after the 2008 recession. In 2015, my dad died while waiting on the kidney transplant list. Had she not delayed care, I am sure she would have had a better outcome.

I share this story because it underscores my personal interest in making sure people get the medical care they need. I am concerned about rising out-of-pocket medical costs – especially as inflation and wage stagnation make it harder for people to afford care.

help yourself with the help of laborers

Despite these challenges, I am hopeful that things will get better. Employers and benefits consultants will rise to the occasion and help others manage these difficult factors. I outline three key ways advisors and employers can work together to help employees cope with rising health care costs amid record-setting inflation.

  1. Embrace the power of digital health tools. A variety of digital health tools exist that can help people access and manage care while controlling overall costs. Condition-specific tools exist for nearly every common chronic illness. Whether someone has high blood pressure, anxiety, or even a rare genetic condition, chances are there is a digital tool that can help manage that condition, improve outcomes, and lower costs. Employers and counselors should help employees find and use those tools.
  2. Adjust benefit design to this changing reality. While high deductibles and hefty out-of-pocket maximums may be here to stay, this is a bad time to raise these amounts to even more stratospheric levels. To help employees manage already high out-of-pocket costs, employers should offer spending accounts and other solutions that give employees the flexibility to pay for their health care expenses over time. We cannot rely on hospital financing programs and consumer loans to manage this debt. While they are great resources, they only help people after they have made the decision to care. Unless a person knows in advance that they have some way to pay for their care, they will withhold service until their condition worsens or their finances improve. This leads to more intensive and costly medical intervention to help the person recover.
  3. Make preventive care a priority. We must continue to urge employees to visit their doctors for routine checkups – and to manage their chronic conditions. COVID-19 has already set us back in this regard, as many people put off taking care of themselves because they clearly didn’t want to go to the doctor’s office during a pandemic. We can’t keep deepening this hole by making routine care so expensive for people. Employee campaigns and incentives should encourage routine care, and employers should help subsidize this care whenever possible.

Read more: How employers will tackle higher health care costs in 2023

The coming economic climate will make it difficult for many people to get the care they need in 2023. If leaders do not pay attention, medical costs will rise even faster than in the past decade as delays in care worsen chronic conditions. , If employers and benefits advisors work together to address these issues now, they can help patients take charge of their health and not delay or skip the health care they need.

Jay Moore, MDChief Clinical Officer of payerA company on a mission to help people better access and afford care.

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