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Debt Prompts Patients to Delay Treatment, Data Shows

By Maurie Backman - Mar 24, 2018 at 12:29PM

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Does your outstanding debt cause you to avoid the medical care you need?

Though Americans certainly aren't strangers to debt, the impact of owing money extends not just to their financial decisions, but health-related ones, as well. According to new data from lifeinsurance.org, indebted individuals often will delay medical treatment to avoid the added costs. This holds true for roughly 23% of U.S. adults with $10,000 to $25,000 of debt and 27% of those with $25,000 in debt or more.

And it makes sense. After all, racking up costly medical bills might only exacerbate an existing problem. But what many patients may not realize is that putting off treatment in an effort to save money could end up costing them more money, thus perpetuating the cycle they're hoping to avoid in the first place. Talk about painful.

Man on crutches

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Delaying treatment doesn't pay

Many patients avoid seeking medical care for issues that seemingly are minor. The problem, however, is that minor injuries or ailments can escalate into major ones when left to fester.

Imagine, for instance, that you decide not to see a doctor for a deep cut that you're able to bandage on your own, thus saving yourself a $40 copayment. But what happens if that wound gets infected and you land in the hospital as a result? The average cost of a three-day hospital stay is around $30,000, according to Healthcare.gov, and if you don't have good insurance, you might easily pay a quarter of that, especially if your deductible is high. Suddenly, instead of saving yourself money, you're costing yourself a bundle and adding to your debt load, all while putting your health in jeopardy.

If you're struggling with debt, resisting medical treatment when you need it isn't the answer. And the sooner you realize that, the better positioned you'll be to make smarter health-related decisions.

Lowering your healthcare costs

If you're saddled with debt, my colleague Chris Neiger has an effective plan for paying it off that you ought to consult. But I'm not here to talk about paying off debt. Rather, I'm here to review ways to make medical care more affordable because once you do, you'll be less likely to avoid treatment when you need it.

So how can you keep your health-related spending reasonable? This first tip might seem counterintuitive, but avoiding cheap health insurance could be the key. When it comes to health coverage, you tend to get what you pay for. If you buy a plan with the cheapest premium out there, you'll save money each month in that regard, but you might end up spending exponentially more on copays, deductibles, and services that just aren't covered. On the other hand, if you invest in a higher-tier plan, you might pay more in premiums but save money overall.

Next, make sure you really understand your health benefits. Surprisingly, 52% of Americans don't. It's often the case that certain providers or procedures require referrals or preauthorization. If you fail to go through the proper channels as dictated by your insurance plan, the services you receive may not get covered. The same holds true if you inadvertently see a provider who's considered out of network, so do your diligence before receiving care.

Finally, look into a flexible spending account (FSA), which allows you to allocate pre-tax dollars to pay for medical expenses. This year, the annual limit is $2,650, and if you think you'll spend that much out of pocket, it pays to max out. If your effective tax rate is 25%, you'll save about $662 by going this route. You can also look into a health savings account (HSA), which offers additional tax benefits. Eligibility, however, is limited to those with high-deductible plans who meet other criteria.

No matter what steps you take to lower your healthcare costs, doing so is a far more sensible approach to your current financial predicament than delaying or avoiding medical treatment altogether. If you're truly intent on getting out of debt, map out a plan and cut other expenses as needed. But don't neglect your health in an effort to curb an already damaging cycle, because chances are, you'll ultimately make it worse.

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