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More Americans Delaying Medical Treatment Due to Cost

More Americans Delaying Medical Treatment Due to Cost

Story Highlights

  • A third of U.S. adults say their family couldn't afford care in past year
  • One in four say care was deferred for a serious medical condition
  • Lower-income adults and Democrats most likely to report delayed care

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A record 25% of Americans say they or a family member put off treatment for a serious medical condition in the past year because of the cost, up from 19% a year ago and the highest in Gallup's trend. Another 8% said they or a family member put off treatment for a less serious condition, bringing the total percentage of households delaying care due to costs to 33%, tying the high from 2014.

Line graph, 2001-2019. U.S. adults saying family put off medical care due to costs in past year for serious or any condition.

Gallup first asked this question in 1991, at which time 22% reported that they or a family member delayed care for any kind of condition, including 11% for a serious condition. The figures were similar in the next update in 2001, and Gallup has since asked this question annually as part of its Health and Healthcare poll. This year's survey was conducted Nov. 1-14.

Americans' reports of family members delaying any sort of medical treatment for cost reasons were lower in the early to mid-2000s when closer to a quarter reported the problem. Since 2006, the rate has averaged 30%.

The pattern is similar for the subset of Americans postponing medical treatment for a serious condition. The rate rose from 12% in 2001 to an average of 19% since 2006. However, the current 25% is the highest yet, exceeding the prior high-point of 22% recorded in 2014.

Income Gap Widens for Cost-Related Delays for Serious Conditions

Reports of delaying treatment for a serious condition jumped 13 percentage points in the past year to 36% among adults in households earning less than $40,000 per year while it was essentially flat (up a non statistically significant three points) among those in middle-income and higher-income households.

As a result of the spike in lower-income households this year, the gap between the top and bottom income groups for failure to seek treatment for a serious medical condition widened to 23 percentage points in 2019. The income gap had averaged 17 points in the early years of Barack Obama's presidency, but narrowed to an average 11 points in the first few years after implementation of the ACA, from 2015 to 2018.

Line graph, 2003-2019. U.S. adults saying family put off medical care for serious condition due to costs, by household income.

Delayed Care Up Most Among Those With Pre-Existing Conditions

Reports of delaying care for a serious condition due to costs are also up 13 points compared with last year among Americans who report they or another household member has a "pre-existing condition."

At the same time, there has been virtually no change in the percentage of adults without pre-existing conditions in the household who delayed care for a serious health issue in the past year, currently 12% versus 11% in 2018.

Changes in health insurance coverage don't appear to be the cause of the increase in delayed care as the percentage uninsured is 11% in the poll, within the 9% to 11% range seen each year since 2015. Also, the percentage delaying care has increased a similar proportion among those covered by private health insurance or Medicare/Medicaid as well as among the uninsured.

Recent Reports of Delayed Care May Have a Partisan Component

A cautionary note in the new findings is that most of the recent increase in reports that family members are delaying treatment for serious conditions has occurred among self-identified Democrats. This is up 12 points since 2018 among Democrats, compared with three- and five-point increases among Republicans and independents, respectively.

This ties in with Democrats' higher likelihood than Republicans of reporting that they or a household family member has a pre-existing medical condition.

Whether these gaps are indicative of real differences in the severity of medical and financial problems faced by Democrats compared with Republicans or Democrats' greater propensity to perceive problems in these areas isn't entirely clear. But it's notable that the partisan gap on putting off care for serious medical treatment is currently the widest it's been in two decades.

Line graph, 2003-2019. U.S. adults saying family put off medical care for serious condition due to costs, by party ID.


Since 2001, Gallup has tracked a near 50% increase in the percentage of Americans saying that they or a family member chose not to get medical care because of the costs they would have to pay. Such delays in medical treatment, whether for injuries, illnesses or chronic conditions, can have significant implications for the economy and healthcare system, but also the political climate.

One indicator of the stress that delayed care can put on the healthcare system is the use of emergency departments. According to the American Hospital Association, patient visits to emergency departments in community hospitals increased 19% between 2001 and 2016 and has likely climbed to over 20% by today. While that may reflect many factors, including the aging of the population and the number of Americans living in close proximity to hospitals, it may also be indicative of a greater need for emergency care due to lack of routine care.

While most of the increase Gallup sees in delayed treatment occurred over a decade ago, the sharp increase in the past year, particularly among Democrats, suggests that healthcare costs could be a more potent political issue than previously seen. Presidential candidates who acknowledge the problem and propose solutions to address it may find a receptive ear among voters.

From an economic perspective, delayed care can have a range of negative effects, including reduced workplace productivity in the short-term, and increased healthcare costs and in the long-term -- costs that ultimately burden the federal budget which has ripple effects on the economy.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

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