Amber Eyerly, 32, says she's never been much good at saving money. But with only minimal raises, at best, expected for 2009 at the Los Angeles public relations firm where she works, Eyerly carefully studied her health insurance benefits package this year to see where she could trim costs.
She made one cut for 2009 by signing up for a medical flexible spending account, which takes money, pre-tax, from each paycheck to spend on healthcare costs and reduces her taxable income. And when she read that, unlike trips to a specialist, visits to her primary care doctor don't require her to first pay down a health insurance deductible, Eyerly arranged to have her dermatology records for a minor skin condition sent to her primary care physician, who now writes prescriptions for any dermatology medicines the young executive needs.
Eyerly's personal health cost review is being repeated across the country, as the economic downturn worsens and jobs -- and the benefits that often come with them -- get slashed. "Millions of consumers are weighing their medical costs and trying to see what expenses they can jettison to save some money," says Cathy Tripp, a senior consultant in the Minneapolis office of benefits consulting firm Watson Wyatt. A Watson survey of 2,500 U.S. employees released this month found that 17% of those surveyed had avoided a recommended doctor's visit this year to save costs (the question was not asked in the firm's 2007 survey). And 17% did not fill a prescription or skipped doses of prescribed medicine, an increase from 13% in 2007.
But healthcare leaders worry that short-term savings could lead to serious illness, and even deaths. "We're seeing that consumers are willing to take risks by not doing what they perceive to be small things, such as putting off going to the doctor and deciding not to pay for medicines," says Dana Goldman, head of health economics at research firm Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. "That puts the individual at risk, but the potential harm doesn't stop with them," Goldman says. "It also becomes a problem for society if, for example, infections spread because some people don't fill a needed antibiotic prescription, or if an increase in hospitalizations for chronic illnesses places a deeper financial burden on a hospital or city."
Says J. James Rohack, president-elect of the American Medical Assn.: "Consumers need to take steps to stay healthy, such as getting exercise and losing weight, if necessary, and finding help through private and public channels to help pay for healthcare costs."