It's a pretty sad fact that medical debt is the single largest source of personal bankruptcy filings in the country. But while accumulating healthcare debt to the point of bankruptcy is obviously far from ideal, the opposite scenario -- avoiding medical care to stay out of debt -- can also spell trouble in the long run. Unfortunately, a growing number of U.S. adults are starting to opt out of medical treatment rather than deal with the financial repercussions involved.

In a new Bankrate study, 25% of Americans claim that either they or someone in their family has avoided necessary medical treatment because of the cost involved. This data is consistent with a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that 27% of adults have postponed medical treatment because they didn't have the money to pay for it. Specifically, 23% didn't undergo a recommended test or treatment, and 21% didn't obtain prescription medication, all because of money.

Woman visiting the doctor


While many people, particularly those with minimal insurance coverage, might feel as though they have no choice but to cut down on healthcare to preserve their finances, this trend is disturbing on multiple levels. If people don't get the care they need, they risk making their existing issues even worse. This can not only compromise their long-term health, but expose them to even higher medical costs down the line.

Who's skimping on medical care?

According to Bankrate, the aforementioned trend is highest among younger workers, who, in theory, earn lower salaries than their older counterparts and therefore have the least amount of wiggle room in their budgets. In fact, an estimated 31% of 18- to 36-year-olds have intentionally passed up medical care to avoid spending the money, while only 25% of 37- to 52-year-olds and just 23% of 53- to 71-year-olds say the same.

But despite the fact that pre- or early retirees are the least likely to forego medical treatment because of money, that 23% figure is concerning nonetheless. While it's a bad idea to ignore medical advice at any age, this habit is most likely to hurt older Americans, who are more susceptible to major health issues by virtue of their age. It also tells us that a sizable percentage of seniors aren't saving adequately for healthcare in retirement, which, according to some estimates, will cost the average healthy 65-year-old couple today roughly $377,000 over a 22- to 24-year period.

Of course, paying for an expensive medical procedure or treatment is easier said than done. But there are steps we can all take to grow our savings so that when we are faced with those ridiculous costs, we'll be better positioned to cover them.

Build savings and keep tabs on your health

Avoiding medical treatment is a dangerous prospect, so if getting the care you need boils down to money, it's time to work on setting some aside for what could be the most important reason you'll ever tap your savings account. Now most experts will advise you to sock away enough money in an emergency fund to cover three to six months' worth of living expenses, but that isn't feasible in the near term, at least put away enough to cover a major medical bill.

Granted, a significant medical expense could cost you $1,000, or $10,000, depending on your health plan and the issue at hand. But if you commit to at least saving the former, you'll be better equipped to handle a sizable medical bill -- which also means you'll be less likely to avoid the treatment your doctor recommends.

So how do you build that medical emergency fund? Start by reviewing your budget and cutting back on expenses that aren't necessities, like cable, leisure spending, and restaurant meals. If that doesn't help you save much, then consider scaling back one major expense category, like housing or transportation, to free up some cash to put away. Alternatively, you can try working a second job for a number of months to build that cushion.

Another thing you can do to protect your health in the face of limited cash reserves is to take advantage of whatever preventative services your insurance plan offers. Many plans include at least one free wellness visit each year, and attending that appointment could save you from costlier treatment down the line. If you're older and enrolled in Medicare, take advantage of the program's numerous free preventative services, which run the gamut from depression screenings to weight loss programs.

While sidestepping medical treatment might seem like a necessary sacrifice when money is tight, avoiding the care you need is a move that could come back to bite you down the line. You're far better off amassing some savings to cover your medical costs and following your doctor's advice.

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