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More Americans Went Without Medicine Last Year: Report

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Americans went without doctor visits and prescription drugs last year as unemployment remained high and the number of those without health insurance rose.
Americans went without doctor visits and prescription drugs last year as unemployment remained high and the number of those without health insurance rose.

Americans took fewer prescription drugs, visited the doctor less often, and made more trips to the emergency room for treatment as unemployment and the struggling economy forced people to go without medical care last year, according to a new study.

The number of times Americans saw the doctor declined 4.7 percent in 2011, the second straight year people cut back on office visits by more than 4 percent, according to market research from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Economics. Non-emergency hospital admissions declined 0.1 percent in 2011 after rising 1.9 percent the previous year. But emergency room visits leaped 7.4 percent last year, which IMS suggests is the result of high unemployment and the rising numbers of uninsured people seeking medical care.

Rising health care costs are affecting a growing number of people as the ranks of the uninsured swell, health insurance premiums rise as benefits shrink, and the burden of out-of-pocket costs grows heavier. The typical American family will spend $20,000 on health care this year, another recent study says. Health insurance companies, hospitals, and physicians are striving to contain health care spending, which reached $2.6 trillion last year, a tenfold increase since 1980. President Barack Obama's health care reform law aims to restrain this rapid increase in spending but faces threats of repeal from the Supreme Court and Republican politicians.

Senior citizens, in particular, cut back on their prescriptions. Compared to 2010, people aged 65 or older used 3.1 percent fewer prescription drugs last year. It's the second year in a row that older Americans scaled back on their use of prescription medicines, a reverse from growth in prior years, IMS reports. Older Americans particularly reduced the use of drugs to treat high-blood pressure, the report says.

Americans filled 1.1 percent fewer prescriptions at retail pharmacies last year though overall spending on them rose 3.7 percent to $320 billion partly because of price increases on brand-name medicines and the introduction of the most new drugs in the last 10 years.

Out-of-pocket drug spending by people with some form of health insurance fell $1.8 billion to $49 billion. The lower out-of-pocket costs occurred mostly because health care reform expanded the discounts available to Medicare beneficiaries, the report says. Medicare enrollees paid an average co-payment of $23.31 for a prescription last year, 10.2 percent lower than in 2010 and their total out-of-pocket spending fell 15.6 percent to $9.7 billion.

Health care reform also contributed to an uptick in prescriptions filled by young adults, who are now permitted to remain on their parents' health insurance plans until their 26th birthdays. People aged 19 to 25 increased 2 percent in 2011, the report says.

Photo by flickr user Images_of_Money

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