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American Cancer Society says high health costs cause financial strain for more than 130 million

Emergency room nurse Christine Bauer treats Joshua Lagade of Vista, California, for the flu as his girlfriend Mayra Mora looks on in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, January 18, 2018.

Mike Blake | Reuters

The high cost of health care in the U.S. is causing financial hardship for more than half of all American adults as millions put off care because they can’t afford it, according to a new study by the American Cancer Society.

The study found that 56% of respondents, roughly 137 million adults in the U.S., reported at least one instance of financial struggle due to medical expenses in the past year. The group examined data collected in the National Health Interview Survey.

“There is increasing evidence that people are feeling the financial pinch even if they’re insured,” said Dr. Gerald Kominski, a senior fellow at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Americans spent $3.5 trillion on health care in 2018.

Many people have high-deductible insurance plans, which means those patients have to pay out-of-pocket costs before their insurance kicks in, he said. Kominski said that can deter some people from seeking the care they need.

“Most Americans can’t handle a $500 emergency expense,” he said.

These high-deductible plans contribute to the large number of people who are underinsured, according to Sara Collins, vice president for health-care coverage and access at The Commonwealth Fund.

The Commonwealth Fund estimates that 44 million people were underinsured in 2018. When a person is underinsured, it means they have an insurance plan, but that plan does not offer complete financial coverage.

Collins said those who are underinsured are “much more likely to say they haven’t gotten needed health care because of costs.” She added that this can prevent certain patients from filling prescriptions, getting needed tests or going to the doctor to receive care.

According to the study, those with less education and poorer health have a higher chance of experiencing financial struggle due to medical costs. More than half of those without insurance, 54%, reported financial hardship due to high costs, compared with 26.5% of those with public insurance and 23.2% with private insurance. The study also warned that the prevalence of chronic conditions and higher patient cost-sharing will likely increase the risk for financial struggle in the future.

High out-of-pocket health-care spending has become a major issue for many Americans, putting political pressure on lawmakers in Washington to lower costs. It’s become a rare bipartisan issue in Congress with Republicans and Democrats teaming up on the Senate Finance Committee to grill drugmakers and pharmacy benefit managers in a series of hearings on high drug prices earlier this year.

President Donald Trump has pushed to lower drug prices by proposing a ban on so-called backdoor deals between pharmaceutical companies and pharmacy benefit managers, who receive discounts for securing a spot for drugmakers’ products on their list of preferred drugs.

Lawmakers have also introduced legislation to stop patients from getting hit with surprise medical bills, and the White House promised to make the issue a priority for the Trump administration. Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed a “Medicare for All” bill, which would create a government-run system and effectively end the private health care market.