doctor

Extra1/30/2007 6:27 PM ET

More going without health care

Americans are paying more for medical insurance than they did a year ago, and many are avoiding important doctor visits simply because of the cost, an MSN-Zogby poll reports.

By Bradley Meacham

More than a quarter of Americans have skipped or postponed an essential visit to a doctor because it was too expensive, a new MSN-Zogby poll says.

Nearly half (48%) say they pay more in health-insurance premiums than a year ago, and 37% say they pay more out of pocket for medical services or prescriptions.

The results of the poll of 9,765 adults suggest that medical expenses are becoming a heavier burden on household finances, even for middle-income Americans. They underscore the findings of other recent studies that the cost of health care is becoming a more widespread problem.

The ranks of the nation's uninsured have grown by 11.2% since 2000, according to a study by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. Tens of millions of Americans lack insurance, and millions more are underinsured, with gaps in their coverage that leave them exposed to catastrophic medical bills.

Medical bills pile up

A recent Harvard University study said medical bills are a factor in about half of all consumer bankruptcies. Another study reported that more Americans are turning to credit cards to cover rising medical expenses, often leading to crippling debts.

"Too many working people are piling up debt on high-interest credit cards and risking financial security simply because they have the misfortune of getting sick," says Mark Rukavina, one of the authors of a study by nonpartisan public-policy group Demos, according to Bankrate.com.

Nearly three in 10 participants in the survey from low- and middle-income households with credit card debt say medical expenses contributed to their current credit card balances, according to the Demos report. The majority had a major medical expense within the past three years.

More families are struggling in the aftermath of a serious medical problem, and many try to repay debts by taking out second mortgages or cashing in their retirement accounts, says Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor. "Many will still end up in bankruptcy, but only after they have run up even more debt and their last meager resources have been exhausted," she told Bankrate.com.

Squeeze for middle-income people

According to the MSN-Zogby poll, 91% say they have health insurance, and 73% say they're happy with their coverage. Yet household income has a major influence on coverage. About 30% of households with incomes below $25,000 go without coverage, compared with 3% of those with household income exceeding $100,000.

The interactive MSN-Zogby poll took place Jan. 17-22 and contains a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

The poll suggests an increasing squeeze for middle-income Americans. People with household income of $25,000 to $75,000 report the highest level of dissatisfaction, with approximately one in four dissatisfied with their benefits.

Those in the $50,000-to-$75,000 range were most likely (51%) to say their premiums have climbed. Married adults say they've been hit especially hard: 51% are facing higher premiums over the past year, compared with 37% of single adults.

When it comes to out-of-pocket expenses, households with $25,000 to $35,000 in income say they are hardest hit, with 40% paying more.

Though 16% of Americans say they have a health savings account, the popularity of the high-deductible plans increases as a person's income rises. Nearly a quarter (24%) of people with more than $100,000 in household income say they have a health savings account, compared with just 5% of those making less than $25,000. Such plans allow consumers to save money tax-free to pay for health services.

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