La Jolla-based advocacy group West Health continues to reveal shocking data about the state of U.S. health care. Their latest finding, conducted in partnership with Gallup Poll, was that 34 million Americans know someone who has died in the last five years from not being able to afford medical treatment. That translates to 1 in 5 Americans knowing someone personally who died because health care is too expensive.
The study made national headlines when it was released in November after Gallup polled 1,099 adults across all 50 states. West Health’s goal with these studies is to spur change to lower health care costs so seniors can age in place. West Health is part of a family of nonprofit and nonpartisan organizations all funded by Gary and Mary West. The couple who made their fortune in telecommunications are lesser-known stalwarts of San Diego philanthropy. They funded a wellness center operated by Serving Seniors as well as a dental center for seniors located in the area. Their advocacy also stretches nationwide, with a policy center in Washington, D.C.
Through West Health’s partnership with Gallup Poll, they also found Americans borrowed an estimated $88 billion to pay for health care in the past year, and that 77% of Americans are concerned rising costs will significantly damage the U.S. economy. They have also tracked a rise in medication insecurity, the phenomena of being unable to pay for prescribed drugs at least once in the last 12 months. That number rose four percentage points from 18.9% to 22.9% between early 2019 and November 2019. Another analysis they conducted found large drugmakers could lose $1 trillion in sales and they would still be the most profitable industry.
“I think we all know that health care is so expensive. But I think it is surprising when you actually engage with the populace, with individuals, with families too, to see just how many are making tradeoffs that they shouldn't have to make,” said Tim Lash in a phone interview, chief strategy officer for West Health. “So, 34 million people saying they know someone who's passed away after not being able to afford treatment or 58 million Americans saying that they can't pay for [their prescription] drugs or $88 billion being borrowed — we're literally financing health care on credit cards at 18% interest. When you just look at the sheer magnitude of those numbers, it's startling.”
Lash is hopeful that something may finally be done about lowering the cost of prescription drugs. While skyrocketing prices have been an issue for years, he feels things are finally getting to a boiling point where all political parties are willing to enact new policies. To assist in that effort, West Health has formed a research partnership with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget to find policy solutions to lower health care costs. Meanwhile, they will continue working with Gallup to track public sentiment and see where public pain points are.
“We think it's really important to [partner with Gallup], to inform which policies should be prioritized, to shape them, to focus them, to help advance them,” Lash said. “But it's also important to ensure that those stakeholders that are in decision-making positions realize that they're going to be held accountable and that there's real pain that's on the backs of Americans and something needs to be done.”
Currently, West Health is focusing on three policy areas: drugs, value-based care and greater transparency. For Lash, greater transparency is important because it will help Medicaid and businesses purchasing employer-sponsored insurance negotiate for better prices.
“We've seen consolidation happen across one geography for another. You have hospitals that are consolidating and leveraging their power to push higher and higher prices onto large self-insured employers. When somebody is bankrupting businesses, it’s crippling industry and it's at the expense of American wage growth.
If we had greater transparency around what health systems are charging and some of these asymmetries in terms of price, we believe that is a necessary condition for us moving towards a functioning market.”
Steps forward on that issue include legislation around surprise billing and giving employers access to claims databases so they are informed in their negotiations with health systems, according to Lash.
While West Health is lobbying current senators to act so less people will die because they cannot afford health care, the affordability crisis will likely play a role in the 2020 elections, as people demand action from D.C.
“I think that it's finally now coming to a tipping point and people are paying attention,” Lash said.