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Nearly 1 in 4 Americans are skipping medical care because of the cost

Dana Neely

For many Americans, a trip to the doctor hinges on whether they can afford to go, rather than if it's a medical necessity. 

Over the past year, 22% of Americans say they have steered clear of some sort of medical care — including doctor visits, medications, vaccinations, annual exams, screenings, vision checks and routine blood work — because of the expense, according to a recent online survey of roughly 2,500 U.S. adults conducted on behalf of Bankrate. 

Additionally, 15% report that another family member in their household decided to forgo medical care because it was too expensive. When broken down by age, millennials (ages 24 to 39) reported avoiding the doctor's office at higher rates than baby boomers (ages 56 to 74). 

The cost of medical care services in U.S. cities increased an average of 5.3% over the past 12 months ending in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' consumer price index

It's not just the care that Americans are struggling to cover. Last year, Kaiser Family Foundation found 29% of Americans failed to take their medications as prescribed because of the cost, with about 19% of respondents saying they did not fill the prescription and 12% saying they cut pills in half or skipped a dose.

About half of Americans report taking at least one prescription drug, according to Kaiser. Unsurprisingly, the more prescriptions you have, or the more each drug costs, the harder it becomes to afford.

Mitigating the cost of care on your monthly finances 

Estimating the cost of even a simple doctor's visit can be challenging, especially if you're uninsured or have a high-deductible health insurance plan that doesn't have copays. Of those who incurred health care expenses over the past year, half say their bills were more expensive than they anticipated, Bankrate found. 

That can create financial strain. About 9% of those who had health care expenses in the past year say they took on substantial debt to pay their medical bills, according to Bankrate's survey. About 18% report having to borrow money, either from friends or family, their retirement accounts or through home equity. 

"Health care costs, including the most significant stemming from an unexpected accident or illness, can inflict lasting financial damage," says Mark Hamrick, a senior economic analyst with Bankrate.

One way to help avoid medical debt is to build up a financial cushion, either through an emergency savings account or by contributing to a health savings account or flexible spending account.

FSAs and HSAs give you the option of putting money directly from your paycheck tax-free into a dedicated account to be used for out-of-pocket health care costs, or to reduce the cost of other related medical expenses, such as dental and vision.

With HSAs, you can contribute up to $3,550 per year for self coverage and up to $7,100 for family coverage in 2020 (more if you're 55 or over) — and there are no use-it-or-lose-it policies. But HSAs are generally only available for those with high-deductible health insurance plans.

For those with more traditional employer-based insurance plans, your benefits program may offer a health FSA. You can contribute up to $2,750 in 2020, but you'll need to spend everything you put in the account within the calendar year, or else you could lose any leftover money.

If neither of those options are available, consider regularly setting aside money in a savings account. But make sure to only use this account for emergencies, such as car or home repairs, a root canal or an unexpected trip to the hospital.

Better yet, set up a separate savings account specifically for health expenses. "While it may be tempting to dip into this account for a vacation or credit card payment, make sure to only use the funds when you have a medical expense," Tori Marsh, a health insights analyst for GoodRx, tells CNBC Make It.

Health care costs, including the most significant stemming from an unexpected accident or illness, can inflict lasting financial damage.
Mark Hamrick
senior economic analyst with Bankrate

If you open a new account, look for a high-yield online option offered by banks like Marcus by Goldman Sachs (1.70% APY) or HSBC Direct's savings account (1.85% APY). While the Federal Reserve's emergency rate cut will likely continue to drive down interest rates on savings accounts, an online savings account will likely still net you a higher rate than the national average of 0.09% APY

Beyond saving more, research treatment prices in advance either through your insurance provider's website or by calling customer service. You can also check out third-party estimates from sites like Clear Health CostsFAIR Health and Healthcare Bluebook. Health care experts also recommend talking with your medical provider about your ability to afford non-emergency treatments.

Tell your doctor, for example, if you are having trouble affording your medications, Carolyn McClanahan, a Florida-based financial planner and physician, tells CNBC Make It. Some don't pay attention to costs unless you tell them that it's a concern.

Don't miss: 32% of American workers have medical debt—and over half have defaulted on it

Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

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