Record high share in U.S. report delaying medical treatments due to costs — here’s how you can save on health care

Personal finance

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More people in the U.S. are deciding to hold off on medical care for financial reasons.

The share of Americans who say they or a family member delayed medical treatment due to cost rose to 38% in 2022 from 26% in 2021, according to the results of a Gallup poll released Jan. 17.

That percentage is the highest since the polling organization began taking the measurement in 2001, at which point 19% of people answered they’d postponed health care because of money. The latest result also marks the sharpest year-over-year increase in the survey’s history.

A large share of the delays in treatment last year were for health conditions that the respondents described as either somewhat or very serious.

“People are stretching out drugs and avoiding doctor visits for diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases, which can cause the problems to spiral out of control,” said Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner and physician who is the founder of Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida.

If you are struggling with health-care costs, taking these steps can help, experts say.

1. Start with in-network providers

One way to save on medical expenses is to make sure your doctors are in network for your insurance plan, “as out-of-network care can be very expensive,” said McClanahan, a member of CNBC’s Financial Advisor Council. The same goes for hospitals, labs and other medical providers you anticipate using.

You can check with your insurer as well as the provider you’d like to see to find out if they’re in network. Sometimes, doctors leave a network, McClanahan said, so you want to check this again if you haven’t seen a provider in some time.

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“Always start with your primary care physician, where your copay or out-of-pocket cost will be lowest,” said Caitlin Donovan, a spokeswoman for the National Patient Advocate Foundation.

2. Make the most of reaching your deductible

Planning for care with consideration of your deductibles is another cost-saving strategy, McClanahan said.

Your deductible is the amount you have to pay for your health care before your coverage kicks in. The average single employee had a deductible of around $1,760 in 2022, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

If you reach your deductible, you might want to squeeze in other care or treatments within the same year to cut costs, McClanahan said.

Certain preventive care, including screenings and immunizations, are often covered without consideration of your deductible.

In fact, early detection for conditions like cancer can save your life.
Caitlin Donovan
a spokeswoman for the National Patient Advocate Foundation

Those who pass their out-of-pocket maximum for the year — the most you have to pay for covered services in a plan year — would especially benefit from seeking any other needed treatments within the year. They should be fully covered after that point, McClanahan said.

“For example, do you have skin lesions that you need checked? Do you have joint or muscle issues that could benefit from physical therapy? Is it time for your colonoscopy?” she said.

3. ‘Be an engaged patient’

Working to stay informed about your health and any necessary treatments, along with practicing a little skepticism about what you’re told by medical professionals, can also help keep down costs, McClanahan said.

“Be an engaged patient to make sure you get the appropriate care,” she said. “If a doctor wants to order a test or do a procedure, ask the following: ‘How will this test change what you do for me? If it isn’t going to change anything, does it really need to be done?'”

“Unnecessary testing adds costs and puts the patient at risk of false positive testing, which means the doctor has to do more tests to prove something isn’t wrong,” McClanahan said.

Often, she said, there are alternatives to possibly costly medications, tests and procedures. For example, in some cases, high cholesterol or high blood pressure can be turned around by dietary and lifestyle changes, she said.

Lastly, she advises patients to keep comprehensive histories of their medical records, including any procedures or tests they’ve had done, to cut down on needless and potentially expensive redundant ones down the road.

4. Seek help with costs

If you’re anticipating a hospital stay, review its website for information about financial assistance programs, Donovan said. “You may qualify for a reduced or even no-cost stay,” she said.

In some cases, you can set up a payment plan with a hospital or provider.

There are also a number of charitable organizations that assist people with their health-care costs, Donovan said. For example, at Copays.org, you can apply for funds to put toward copays, premiums, deductibles and over-the-counter medications.

The National Patient Advocate Foundation has a financial resource directory in which you can search for local aid for everything from dental care to end-of-life services.

Some older Americans may be eligible for assistance with their monthly premiums under the Medicare Savings Program, Donovan said. “If you qualify, your premiums, deductibles and copays will be covered, which would be an enormous financial relief for anyone,” she said.

In addition, those enrolled in Medicare Part D, which covers prescriptions, should look to see if they qualify for Extra Help. That program can reduce the costs related to your drugs, Donovan added.

But the last thing you want to do is put off taking care of yourself, she said.

“Getting onto a treatment plan immediately may delay the debilitating effects of a condition, like muscle degeneration,” Donovan said. “In fact, early detection for conditions like cancer can save your life.”

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