Drug Costs

Another Look at Polling

November 14, 2019 5:06 pm

Gallup released a new survey this week that reached an alarming conclusion: About 34 million Americans say they have known someone who, in the last five years, has died because they were unable to get medical treatment.


That finding is a headline grabber.


Like a lot of headlines we have read over the last year, however, we worry it inserts a bit of hysteria into a matter—health-care access and affordability—that deserves serious examination and consideration.


Importantly, the poll came with this caveat: “In all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 2.8 million persons died in 2017 in the U.S. across all causes.”


That emphasis is our own. It means that, over the last five years, 14 million Americans have passed away … in total. In other words, the number of actual deaths is less than half the number of people who Gallup says know someone who died because they could not get medical care. We admit to struggling with the new math taught in elementary schools these days, but something seems off. Maybe that is why Gallup also warned, “These results are not meant to quantify the number of people who have died after not being able to pay for medical treatment, including prescription drugs …” (Again, the emphasis is our own.) 


We repeatedly have said that Americans’ worries about health-care costs are real. One person going without care is one too many. But, largely, it is not drug costs that are driving these anxieties, and a survey released just eight months ago by Gallup proves that fact.


According to that poll, only 10 percent of Americans think the price of prescription drugs presents a financial burden to their family. For patients facing three or more medical conditions, that number is higher (about 20 percent), but it is hardly headline-grabbing.


Other surveys have reached similar results. In March, the Kaiser Family Foundation asked respondents who are currently taking prescription drugs about their ability to afford their  medications. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said affording their medicines is “easy.” For Americans who take between one and three medications, that number was 83 percent. For patients who take four or more drugs, the percentage saying they had an “easy” time affording treatments was still 62 percent.


The Kaiser poll also asked respondents what they thought about certain policies, including drug-price negotiation, that some policymakers—and John and Laura Arnold and their funded groups—say will keep drug prices increases in check. As CNBC reported, only 31 percent of Americans said they would support price negotiation if it reduced research and development. (As this blog post explains, price negotiation will adversely impact innovation.)


Support for price negotiation declined to 29 percent when respondents were told that it could result in diminished access, or Medicare not covering some prescription drugs. Additionally, more Kaiser respondents (50 percent) said competition among drug and insurance companies would do a better job than regulation (41 percent) of managing drug prices.


Once more: Americans’ worries about health-care costs are real. Hyperbolic headlines only feed those anxieties, but the bigger concern is that they could lead to policies that, ultimately, will result in even fewer individuals getting the care that they need, or that will save their lives.