Baby Boomers Struggle
Paying for Our Healthcare
What Can We Do About It?
Paying for medical care has long been a struggle for many Baby Boomers as budgets tighten because of the economic crunch.
Baby Boomers are skimping on needed treatment.
Nearly half of American Baby Boomers now report that someone in their family has cut back on their medical care or prescribed medications—postponing checkups, recommended tests and procedures; cutting pills or skipping doses of required medications; or not filling new prescriptions, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in October. That’s up from 42 percent of those surveyed six months earlier.
One in three Baby Boomers are having trouble paying medical bills, and one in five reports medical debt of at least $1,000.
“Even in 2007, before the economy really took a downspin, we saw that one in five people was having problems paying medical bills—up from one in seven in 2003,” says Alwyn Cassil, director of public affairs for the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan health policy research organization in Washington. “But what we didn’t see last year were these rising rates in unemployment and the problems on Wall Street. The economy may not have been great then, but it wasn’t as bad as it is now.”
Before the fall economic fallout, at least 79 million Americans - including some 7 million Baby Boomers and older - were already struggling with health care bills. Now, more are doing what they can to avoid joining those ranks, even when it means their health and comfort suffer.
In a recent national survey conducted by AARP, one in five respondents blamed health problems on financial stress. About the same percentage said they had delayed seeing a doctor or other medical professional; many reported cutting back on drugs and necessary health care. Roughly one in five respondents also reported seeking outside assistance through drug companies, pharmacies and other programs to reduce their health costs.
Since the recent financial crisis made news, the American Psychological Association reports a 12 percent increase over last spring in people saying the economy is a significant source of stress; those hardest hit are women middle-aged and older. Yet as stress levels increase, psychiatrists and psychologists, along with other health providers, report a drop in patients seeking therapy, largely because of the expense.
What Can We Do About It?
Ask for a discount. Few people ask for one, but when they did, 70 percent of patients who negotiated with hospitals got a price break. Sixty-one percent succeeded in getting a discount from their doctor and 64 percent got a deal from their dentist, according to a Harris/Wall Street Journal survey. For best results, call a local insurer to inquire about its reimbursement rate (usually one-half to two-thirds of the billed amount). Then politely ask the doctor or dentist—not a staff member—or hospital official in person, not by phone, for a discount.
Tap into community programs. Start with your local or state health department. Or visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to learn about available services, from preventative screenings to primary care. These tax-supported programs primarily serve the uninsured, but sometimes accept insured patients, often on a sliding payment scale. Also try your member of Congress, state representative and even the attorney general’s consumer protection office for the inside scoop on little-publicized programs in your area.
Make a formal follow-up. If you are billed for services you thought were covered by your insurer, write a letter—rather than calling—to find out why. “Oftentimes, insurers play a cash flow game with providers, saying your treatment costs weren’t submitted on the proper form,” says patient advocate Mark Rukavina. To better ensure a quick resolution, note on this “formal letter” that copies are being sent to the above mentioned officials.
Think generic—across the board. It’s a no-brainer that generic prescriptions are usually cheaper than their brand-name counterparts. The same applies to over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and other health care products, with store brands costing up to 40 percent less.
Consider a flexible spending account (FSA). These underutilized employee savings accounts let you sock away pretax money for health care costs. Funds set aside can also be used to stock up on eligible over-the-counter drugstore items, such as acetaminophen or mouthwash. Any money not spent by year’s end is forfeited. Read more about FSA rules here.
Apply for hospital charity care. Older Americans with annual household incomes below $23,000 automatically qualify, but even if you earn more, you may be eligible—depending on the average household income in your ZIP code.