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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