Poor people too poor to pay medical copayments

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has released a study of how much the nation’s poor and very poor people can afford to pay for their health care. The following is an overview of the study’s findings.

Americans living at the bottom of the income distribution often struggle to meet their basic needs on very limited incomes, even with the added assistance of government programs. The following analyses describe the characteristics of the poor population; available income for those at the deepest levels of poverty; and average medical care needs among those living in poor and deep poor families (meaning those with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty threshold). The brief concludes with implications for medical cost sharing among those with few resources available.

 

Who are the people living in poverty and deep poverty?

According to the most recent data from 2013, the official poverty rate is 14.5 percent of the population, with 45.3 million people officially poor. Among the poor, 19.9 million people are in deep poverty, defined as income below 50 percent of the poverty threshold.

For 2013, a single-parent family with two children is in poverty if their income falls below 100 percent of the poverty threshold ($18,769) and deep poverty if their income falls below 50 percent of the poverty threshold ($9,385).

Key findings include: Low-income individuals are especially sensitive to even nominal increases in medical out-of-pocket costs, and modest copayments can have the effect of reducing access to necessary medical care. Medical fees, premiums, and copayments could contribute to the financial burden on poor adults who need to visit medical providers.

The problem is even more pronounced for families living in the deepest levels of poverty, who effectively have no money available to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses including copays for medical visits.

In the 2015 population, 6.3 percent are in deep poverty. Nearly 6.5 million children under the age of 18 are in deep poverty, making up about one-third of the deep poverty population.

Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of working age adults with family incomes below 50 percent of the poverty threshold are adults that live with no children, while over one-third (36 percent) live in households with children.

Among working-age adults with family incomes between 50 and 100 percent of the poverty threshold, about one-third (33-34 percent) work part-time or part-year, compared with one-quarter (26 percent) of those with family incomes below 50 percent of poverty.

Looking at those in deep poverty, for adults with family incomes between 25 and 50 percent of poverty, about half report no work hours, and for those with incomes below 25 percent of poverty, 81 percent report no work hours.

Working-age adults in deep poverty report illness or disability (23 percent), taking care of their family (27 percent), and attending school (21 percent) as the main reasons why they are not working.

Just above the poverty threshold, more than half (57 percent) of uninsured adults ages 19 to 64 who could gain Medicaid coverage (between 100 and 138 percent of poverty) work, and nearly three out of four (72 percent) live in a family with at least one worker.

Many families living in poverty and deep poverty face difficulties making ends meet financially. The data show that poor families’ incomes are often not enough to cover even the most basic necessities. For example, a family with income between 40 and 50 percent of the poverty threshold spends on average $3,000 more on necessities than its income. For a family with income between 20 and 30 percent of the poverty threshold, expenditures on basic necessities exceed income by $6,000 on average.

Families living in deep poverty have incomes that are below their expenditures for the most basic necessities and often must borrow or use savings to meet basic needs, before even accounting for the fact that these families may not be spending enough on basic necessities to ensure even a minimally adequate standard of living in these areas.

Families in poverty but with slightly higher incomes still struggle to meet basic needs, as do many families above the poverty threshold.

 

Medical care among people in poverty and deep poverty

In addition to the most basic necessities of food, clothing, housing, and utilities, poor and deep poor families also must consider their health and medical visit needs. Medical fees and copayments potentially contribute to a yet greater financial burden on people who visit their medical providers more frequently.

Out-of-pocket costs for these visits can put a substantial strain on household budgets. But the negative effects of out-of-pocket costs are even more pronounced, because the distribution of medical visits among adults covered by Medicaid is concentrated among some recipients who are even more burdened by out-of-pocket costs.

People with income at or slightly above the poverty threshold have little income to direct towards key goods and services like transportation, precautionary savings, and educational investments. Cost sharing through copayments and premiums for a necessity like medical care and health insurance will discourage use of needed care, including preventive services, and place significant strain on already limited household budgets.

Low-income adults tend to be less healthy than higher-income adults. About one-quarter of adults ages 19 to 64 living in poverty report fair or poor health, compared with about eight percent of those living above 200 percent of the poverty threshold. When subject to copayments and premiums, low-income individuals must decide whether to go to the doctor. As a result of these daily tradeoffs, low-income individuals are especially sensitive to modest and even nominal increases in medical out-of-pocket costs.

 

— Information provided by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. To read the entire study brief, go to http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/15/DeepPoor/ib_DeepPoor.pdf.