Ever-Rising Health Costs Worsen California’s Coronavirus Threat

As California and the nation prepare for the spread of the new coronavirus disease known as COVID-19, it is important to be reminded of another significant threat to the health of our people: the high costs of health care.

It is striking that one of the first steps policymakers must consider in the wake of an outbreak is waiving consumer cost sharing such as copays and co-insurance for coronavirus testing and treatment. Why? We’ve known for decades that the use of patient cost sharing is a blunt instrument that leads people to skimp on necessary services. In an era when the average deductible facing a working family in California now exceeds $2,700, it’s not hard to imagine how many people missed detection and treatment opportunities because they could not afford to pay for them.

The discussion around COVID-19 cost sharing is a reminder that coronavirus testing and treatment is not the only thing Californians forgo because of cost. The latest CHCF health policy poll found that in the last year, more than half of California families delayed or skipped care due to cost, including avoiding recommended medical tests or treatments, cutting medication doses in half, or postponing physical or mental health care. These practices are spreading, and they are making us sicker. Forty-three percent of those who postponed care said it made their conditions worse.

A close look at the survey data (PDF) shows that many Californians experience these problems, regardless of their health insurance status, income, or residence in high- or low-cost regions. And worries over health care costs are even more widely shared. More than two-thirds of state residents are worried about medical bills and out-of-pocket costs, including almost 60% of those with employer-sponsored insurance. These concerns reflect two unfortunate realities: We are all vulnerable to disease, and no one is immune from ruinous medical bills because of it.

A key reason for the growth in cost-related problems and worries for California families is the rise in underlying expenses within our health care system. Economists point to several factors that drive systemwide expenses, including new medical technologies and Californians’ health status. But none of these factors explains away the overall rise and dramatic variation in prices for the same procedures in different parts of the state, even after controlling for the complexity of the procedure and underlying costs like physician wages.

CHCF surveys of employer-sponsored insurance over the last decade show how much of this rise is being shifted to working California families in the form of higher insurance premiums and deductibles. The chart below shows the cumulative increase of inflation and wages along with premiums and deductibles for the average California family covered by a preferred provider organization (PPO) in a workplace health plan. While wage growth has barely kept pace with inflation, family premiums increased at more than twice that rate. It is especially striking that deductibles increased almost four times as much as wages.

California will not be an affordable place to live and raise a family unless it confronts the problem of unjustified, underlying health care costs. Expanding health insurance coverage, increasing subsidies, and limiting out-of-pocket expenses solve immediate problems, but sustained progress demands that we reduce systemwide expenditures for services that are not making Californians any healthier. Evidence suggests the opportunity for savings is significant.

In his state budget (PDF) released in January, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed establishing an Office of Health Care Affordability to address underlying health care cost trends and to develop strategies and cost targets for different sectors of the health care industry. Other states have established offices or cost commissions of this type. A recent CHCF publication examined how four states have structured and empowered their commissions to successfully do this work.

As we confront the public health threat of COVID-19, we must remember that widespread cost-related access problems and worries already afflict most families in the state. In ways that few people anticipated before this year, this cost issue isn’t just a problem for strapped families — it’s a threat to the well-being of every last one of us.