Americans Cut Back on Medical Care

Three out of 10 say they've skipped a recommended test or treatment.

Nov. 12, 2008— -- Bette Corbett says it seems that every day, she gets a new medical bill for the chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer she has been undergoing.

After paying for the basics, such as food and gas, the 52-year-old who lives outside Boston says she cannot seem to make ends meet. Her doctors recommend she get a CT scan to see whether her cancer is progressing, but Corbett has decided not to, at least for now.

"It's a scary place to be because I should have the right to know where I'm standing medically," she said.

Even though Corbett has medical coverage through her job as a customer service agent, she says she cannot afford the rising deductibles and co-pays, and is close to meeting the cap on her insurance.

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"It's really incredible to me that my insurance is very good and still, the amount of money I have to pay out. ... It's my integrity," she said. "I have always been able to pay my bills, and that's really hard for me."

The faltering economy is forcing a growing number of Americans to scale back on medical care, making them skip doctor visits and put off tests and surgeries.

According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of Americans report that someone in their household skipped necessary health care in the past year because of the cost. Just over one-third said they've put off or postponed needed care, and three out of 10 said they've skipped a recommended test or treatment.

In addition, IMS Health, which collects data on the health care industry, recorded the first decline this summer in U.S. prescription drug spending in almost a decade.

Some doctors worry that the economic crunch will cause controllable conditions to escalate into major medical problems.

"What you think is a simple thing you can skip, becomes a disaster, a medical disaster, and the difference between life and death," said Dr. Richard Penson, the clinical director of medical gynecologic oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Jean Mitchell, who researches health care at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute, thinks the problem is not just people who have lost their jobs and, therefore, cannot afford treatment, but also people who are still employed and have to pay high co-pays on their insurance plans.

"Even for people who have insurance, they are faced with paying an increasing share of the health insurance bill out of pocket, which makes them question whether they really need each type of health care service," said Mitchell.

On top of the cost of a doctor's visit is the expensive trip to the pharmacy. Patients taking multiple medications are plagued by higher costs.

More Americans find themselves forced to choose between short-term survival and long-term health. For Corbett, whose bills are mounting, postponing her CT scan is an unforeseen repercussion of the crumbling economy.