People Are Still Avoiding the Doctor – But Not Because of the Virus
At first, Kristina Hartman put off getting medical care out of concern about the coronavirus. But then she lost her job as an administrator at a truck manufacturer in McKinney, Texas.
While she still has health insurance, she worries about whether she will have coverage beyond July, when her unemployment is expected to run out.
“It started out as a total fear of going to the doctor,” she said.
“I definitely am avoiding appointments.”
Ms. Hartman, who is 58, skipped a regular visit with her kidney doctor, and has delayed going to the endocrinologist to follow up on some abnormal lab results.
While hospitals and doctors across the country say many patients are still shunning their services out of fear of contagion — especially with new cases spiking — Americans who lost their jobs or have a significant drop in income during the pandemic are now citing costs as the overriding reason they do not seek the health care they need
The twin risks in this crisis — potential infection and the cost of medical care — have become daunting realities for the millions of workers who were furloughed, laid off or caught in the economic downturn. It echoes the scenarios that played out after the 2008 recession, when millions of Americans were unemployed and unable to afford even routine visits to the doctor for themselves or their children.
Almon Castor’s hours were cut at the steel distribution warehouse in Houston where he works about a month ago. Worried that a dentist might not take all the precautions necessary, he had been avoiding a root canal.
But the expense has become more pressing. He also works as a musician. “It’s not feasible to be able to pay for procedures with the lack of hours,” he said.
Nearly half of all Americans say they or someone they live with has delayed care since the onslaught of coronavirus, according to a survey last month from the Kaiser Family Foundation. While most of those individuals expected to receive care within the next three months, about a third said they planned to wait longer or not seek it at all.
While the survey didn’t ask people why they were putting off care, there is ample evidence that medical bills can be a powerful deterrent. “We know historically we have always seen large shares of people who have put off care for cost reasons,” said Liz Hamel, the director of public opinion and survey research at Kaiser.
And, just as the Great Recession led people to seek less hospital care, the current downturn is likely to have a significant impact, said Sara Collins, an executive at the Commonwealth Fund, who studies access to care. “This is a major economic recession,” she said. “It’s going to have an effect on people’s demand for health care.”
The inability to afford care is “going to be a bigger and bigger issue moving forward,” said Chas Roades, the co-founder of Gist Healthcare, which advises hospitals and doctors. Hospital executives say their patient volumes will remain at about 20 percent lower than before the pandemic.
“It’s going to be a jerky start back,” said Dr. Gary LeRoy, a physician in Dayton, Ohio, who is the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. While some of his patients have returned, others are staying away.But the consequences of these delays can be troubling. In a recent analysis of the sharp decline in emergency room visits during the pandemic, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were worrisome signs that people who had heart attacks waited until their conditions worsened before going to the hospital.
Without income, many people feel they have no choice. Thomas Chapman stopped getting paid in March and ultimately lost his job as a director of sales. Even though he has high blood pressure and diabetes, Mr. Chapman, 64, didn’t refill any prescriptions for two months. “I stopped taking everything when I just couldn’t pay anymore,” he said.