Tuesday, July 16, 2024

COVID-19 Pandemic Narrows Health Care Affordability Gap Between Income Groups

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The COVID-19 pandemic, despite its widespread economic repercussions, has led to notable changes in health care and prescription medication affordability, particularly among low-income adults in the United States. As the pandemic triggered a surge in unemployment and economic loss, these vulnerable groups faced significant challenges. However, a recent study has revealed surprising trends in health care access and affordability during this period.

Health Care Affordability Trends

The study, drawing on data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) between 2019 and 2022, examined changes in health care and prescription medication affordability among different income groups. Researchers found that low-income adults, defined as those with a household income of 200% or less of the federal poverty level (FPL), were less likely to delay or avoid medical care due to cost during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels. Specifically, the proportion of low-income adults delaying medical care decreased from 15.4% in 2019 to 11.2% in 2022. This improvement suggests a narrowing of income-based disparities in health care access.

Prescription Medication Access

Similarly, prescription medication affordability improved across all income groups. Low-income adults were less likely to delay, skip, or take reduced doses of their medications due to cost in 2022 compared to 2019. For instance, the percentage of low-income adults not filling prescriptions dropped from 12.0% in 2019 to 8.9% in 2022. These trends indicate a positive shift in medication access during the pandemic, despite the economic hardships many faced.

From a market access perspective, these findings highlight the critical role of safety-net policies implemented during the pandemic. These policies appear to have mitigated some of the financial barriers to health care and medication for low-income populations, potentially altering the market dynamics for health care services and pharmaceuticals.

• The decreased likelihood of low-income adults delaying or avoiding care during the pandemic underscores the importance of targeted financial support measures.

• Improvements in prescription medication access among all income groups suggest that broader policy interventions can effectively reduce disparities in health care.

• The persistence of affordability improvements even after accounting for changes in health insurance coverage and health care use indicates that these gains were not merely temporary but potentially sustainable with continued policy support.

The study concludes that while health care affordability has improved for low-income adults, leading to a reduction in income-based disparities, the unwinding of pandemic-related safety-net policies could reverse these gains. Policymakers must consider the potential impact on health care affordability and access as they navigate the post-pandemic landscape.

Original Article:

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JAMA Health Forum. 2024 Jun 30;5(6.9):e241939. doi: 10.1001/jamahealthforum.2024.1939.

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