Access to Healthcare in a Recession: How the Economy Impacts Care

There are hundreds of articles celebrating the healthcare industry as recession-proof. There is decidedly less information available that shows how access to healthcare services changes during economic turbulence. In a nation where roughly 49% of us have health insurance through an employer, the health of the economy matters.

Healthcare and the Economy

Economists have been predicting a recession since late 2021 and the storm largely hasn’t materialized. While Americans have battled with rising healthcare costs on top of historic inflation for more than a year, a hot labor market and robust consumer spending have staved off the hallmarks of a recession. Confidence in the economy continues to decay, however, with 58% of surveyed economists predicting 50% or more chance of a recession this year.

But what happens to healthcare access in a recession?

Recessions Are Defined By Unemployment

Falling gross domestic product and increased levels of unemployment are the defining elements of a recession. In the US, nearly half of all households rely on employer-sponsored health insurance.

When unemployment rises, it’s often more than a one-to-one ratio in terms of job loss to coverage-loss. Because entire families often lose coverage, unemployment can have an exponential impact on the number of Americans losing health insurance in a recession.

Related: The True Cost of Healthcare

High-Deductible Plans Aren’t Great, Either

Consumer-driven healthcare plans tend to have higher deductibles, which leads to increased out-of-pocket expenses. Many Americans can’t afford their deductibles in normal circumstances, a problem made even more troubling when one or more income earners loses their job.

More Americans have higher deductible places than ever; between 2008 and 2021, the number of American workers enrolled in high-deductible plans has increased from 8% to 28%.

Higher deductibles lead to delayed care, which has a particularly large impact on the number of Americans seeking preventative care like cancer screenings.

Prioritize Care

Specific healthcare services are more likely to be delayed than others. Between 2009 and 2011, during the long years of the Great Recession, patients were less likely to seek surgical care and other costly but non-life-threatening treatments. In that three-year period, the average 300-bed hospital saw a $3.7 million decline in billing.

Financial Stress Impacts Your Health, Too

A survey conducted during the Great Recession illustrates some general characteristics of economic stress and health. In general:

  • The number of patients with stress-related symptoms increased.
  • More patients canceled treatment.
  • The number of patients with employer-supported insurance decreased.
  • Delayed care led to more severe illness when patients were treated.

Prevention Matters

Prioritize preventative care at home and seek out cost-effective ways to access healthcare. Work with your healthcare provider to access the care and coverage you and your family need, including Medicaid.