People sometimes argue that being uninsured does not prevent access to health care, since uninsured people can choose to pay out-of-pocket for their care, or seek care in an emergency room. The myth that emergency room overcrowding was caused by uninsured people seeking “free” care has been debunked, as we know that most emergency room patients have health insurance. As for the other option – paying for care with their own money – it appears that is unlikely too. A new report from HHS paints a pretty bleak picture of the ability of uninsured Americans to pay for their own medical care. Looking at all uninsured families in the US, the median amount of savings is $20 (the study considered only assets that could be easily liquidated: bank accounts, stocks, bonds, retirement accounts, CDs, money market accounts, and mutual funds). That won’t go far when it comes to paying for a hospital bill. Even uninsured families at the high end of the asset scale had an average of less than $13,000 in financial assets.
With those numbers in mind, it’s not surprising that the HHS report found that uninsured families can afford to pay the costs incurred for only 12% of potential hospitalizations – and those tend to be the less expensive hospital stays, accounting for just 5% of the total amount that hospitals bill to uninsured families.
Perhaps wealthy radio talk show hosts who encourage people to go without health insurance should reconsider.
Another new study indicates that even families that do have health insurance delay or skip going to the doctor because of cost. When we look at realistic access to healthcare, cost is a barrier even for those with health insurance. For those who are uninsured, the HHS report would seem to indicate that cost is usually an insurmountable burden. A $20,000 hospital bill might as well be $1 million if your assets amount to $20.