Medical Bills Continue To Take The Biggest Toll On Black Americans

(Credit: Public Health Practice)

As medical costs continue to rise across the entire health care sector, Americans are increasingly worried about being able to afford the health care they need. And some sectors of the population are hit harder than others. Medical bills continue to have an outsized impact on black Americans, according to a new survey conducted in collaboration with NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Nearly a quarter of African American families who participated in the survey said they have recently struggled to afford the prescription drugs they need. And one in three of the African American respondents said they had “serious problems” paying bills from doctors or hospitals over the past year.

“We specifically asked African American families what were the top concerns they had for health in their own families,” Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, explained. “And we ended up with high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes as being the top.”

Those chronic conditions are somewhat in contrast to the health issues that the general population typically reports as their biggest concerns, like cancer. That’s perhaps due to the fact that the national obesity epidemic has taken an outsized toll on people of color. Access to healthy food has typically been divided along racial and socioeconomic lines, and fast food companies often specifically market their cheap products to low-income communities of color.

African Americans also already tend to have worse health outcomes and less access to health treatment than white Americans do — issues that increase in areas of the country with increased levels of segregation.

Health insurance doesn’t necessarily alleviate the stress that accompanies sky high medical bills. The typical family of four with a employer-sponsored health plan spends more on their health costs each year than they do on their groceries. Most of the people who participated in NPR’s survey did have health insurance plans, but nearly half of them still worried about the catastrophic effects of a major illness in the future. “We found general economic insecurity among families who generally were doing well — and this fear of paying a larger medical bill was just one of the top problems they had,” Blendon said.