Americans Skipping Food, Rent, Christmas Presents to Afford Healthcare

Data Journalist

Updated on October 15th, 2021

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HealthCareInsider’s new health finance survey offers a stark picture of Americans’ ability to afford medical care.

The survey shows 17% of U.S. adults skipped food to afford healthcare.

More than four in 10 have less than $500 for medical bills.

And many avoided dental and other services in the past year.

Three in 10 Americans don’t know how they would pay for a severe illness.

And nearly a third say health insurance is their top medical expense.

Scroll down for survey details.

HealthCareInsider Annual Health Finance Survey

Key Findings on the American Public

17% skipped paying for food to pay for healthcare. 

43% have less than $500 to pay medical bills.

44% avoided seeking medical services in the past year. 

46% have medical debts.

51% received a surprise medical bill in the last year.

Americans are forgoing food, rent and Christmas presents to afford healthcare. 

HealthCareInsider asked U.S. adults which of eight activities they held back on in order to pay for medical needs. 

Entertainment topped the list at 18% of respondents. 

But 17% of Americans avoided paying for food in order to pay for healthcare. 

Another 16% cited travel, 14% pointed to big-ticket purchases, and 13% skipped on home repairs. 

11% of respondents said they didn’t buy Christmas presents, and 9% didn’t pay their rent or mortgage to afford their medical needs.

HealthCareInsider polled 1,062 adults aged 18 and up through SurveyMonkey on September 13th. 

Skipped to afford healthcare:

  • Entertainment: 18%
  • Food: 17%
  • Travel: 16%
  • Big ticket purchases: 14%
  • Home repair: 13%
  • Christmas presents: 11%
  • Fitness: 10%
  • Rent or mortgage: 9%
  • Other: 2%

Lacking Savings

Many Americans don’t have savings put away for their healthcare needs. 

More than four in 10 have less than $500 to pay medical bills.

Among that group, 16% have between $1 and $500, and 26% have no savings at all. 

But there’s also a wealthy 14% of Americans who have more than $6,000 in savings to pay for healthcare. 

The remainder fall mostly in between the two extremes. 

Savings for medical bills:

  • $0: 26%
  • $1 to $500: 16%
  • $501 to $1,500: 12%
  • $1,501 to $3,000: 9%
  • $3,001 to $4,500: 5%
  • $3,001 to $4,500: 5%
  • More than $6,000: 14%

Opting Out of Healthcare

Americans are opting not to use healthcare services due to cost. 

Almost half (44%) of U.S. adults skipped on medical services in the past year. 

Dental treatments topped the list of skipped services at 23%, followed by vision (20%) and preventive medicine (14%). 

30% of respondents said the reason they had not sought healthcare services was that they could not afford them, while 25% said it was because they weren’t sick enough.

Services opted out of:

  • Dental: 23%
  • Vision: 20%
  • Preventive: 14%
  • Lab work, tests or screening: 13%
  • Elective procedure: 12%
  • Other: 3%


Worried about Medical Debt

Six in ten Americans (60%) are very or somewhat concerned that a major health situation could lead to debt.

Almost one-half of respondents say they actually have medical debts.

29% carry medical debts of over $1,000. For 12% of Americans, the medical debt burden surpasses $5,000.

Surprise medical bills are one factor that can drive medical debt. 

Our survey shows that 51% of Americans received a surprise medical bill in the last year.

For 33%, the surprise medical bill was over $500.

Surprise medical bills:

  • Up to $500: 19%
  • $501 to $2,000: 19%
  • $2,001 to $10,000: 9%
  • $10,001 to $20,000: 3%
  • More than $20,000: 2%

Unsure How to Pay

HealthCareInsider asked U.S. adults how they would pay for a severe illness like COVID-19.

26% said they would pay for treatment with a credit card, 17% pointed to nonretirement savings, and 16% would borrow from family.

31% said they didn’t know how they would pay for a severe illness.

Paying for a severe illness:

  • Don’t know: 31%
  • Pay for it with my credit card: 26%
  • Pay for it with non-retirement savings: 17%
  • Borrow money from family: 16%
  • Other: 13%
  • Use retirement savings: 11%
  • Pay for it with an HSA: 9%
  • Borrow money from a financial institution: 8%
  • Crowdfund: 6%

We also asked respondents to rank medical expenses. 

33% cited health insurance as their top expense.

Medical bills were third at 17%.

Despite ranking health insurance as their top medical expense, many Americans are unaware they could obtain federal assistance.

59% of respondents either don’t know or don’t believe they could get a Obamacare subsidy to help pay for their own health insurance.

More Likely to Use Telehealth

With telehealth visits up in the pandemic, we queried respondents on their attitudes toward screen time with doctors.

The number of respondents who said they are very or somewhat likely to use telehealth hit 67%. 

That’s up 12 percentage points from 2020.

Methodology: HealthCareInsider conducted this survey utilizing a SurveyMonkey Audience on September 13, 2021, among a national sample of 1,062 U.S. adults aged 18+. The modeled error estimate for this survey is plus or minus 2.0 percentage points. The sample was balanced for age, gender, and U.S. Region according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.



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