When We Can’t Afford to Be Sick: Access to Healthcare Drops Along with Economy

Stephen Franklin

Slowly but surely the evidence is pilling up to show what the Great Recession have done to our health. As jobs disappeared, paychecks shrunk and healthcare coverage shriveled, the poorest among us increasingly turned to the only places where they shouldn’t be turned away – the nation’s emergency rooms.

The surprise is how much their numbers grew. Between 1997 and 2007, the nation’s hospitals witnessed a 23 percent increase in emergency room visits, according to a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

This increase was double what normally should have taken place, the researchers said. This, however, wasn’t an equal equality rush on the nation’s emergency rooms. It was largely those on Medicaid who made up the increase.

But these are figures from before the economy took its great drive. What has happened since then?

Some of us stopped getting medical care. Some of us stopped going to hospitals. And, most likely, some of us got so sick without medical care that our problems were far worse when we finally find our way to a hospital.


Consider. Between 2007 and 2009 one out of four Americans reported reducing their medical care. Those who cut back the most were the young and the unemployed, according to another study. This was recently released by National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study also showed the difference in what has happened here and in Europe as our economies tumbled downward. The rate of Americans who stopped getting medical care during this time was two to five times that of the Europeans, the study reported.

On the other side of the table, the nation’s hospitals have similarly turned up numbers showing what happens when you have a health care system that doesn’t guarantee protection for everyone. The American Hospital Association recently released its own survey showing that 70 percent of the nation’s hospitals say they are seeing fewer patient visits and elective procedures.

So, too, they are also seeing a spurt in patients signing up for Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs. Plus nine out of 10 hospitals, according to the organization, reported an increase in care for which they were not paid.

There’s lots more we need to know. How many lives were needlessly lost for the lack of health insurance? How many lives were stained? Maybe when health care reform finally kicks in, we’ll learn what a price we paid for a time when the economy got terribly sick and so did we.

Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.

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