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Americans are delaying needed health care because of inflation and housing costs

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many people facing higher food and housing costs are paying the bills by putting off critical medical care. WUSF's Stephanie Colombini reports from Florida's Gulf Coast.

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: In the Newtown neighborhood of Sarasota, people were milling about in a parking lot where doctors had set up a health screenings event. Tracy Green joined a line outside a pink and white bus to get free mammograms.

TRACY GREEN: To see if I have cancer or any kind of things going on with my breasts.

COLOMBINI: Green says her breasts cause her severe back pain and says a doctor once recommended she get reduction surgery, but she can't afford it. The 54-year-old says her teeth are in bad shape, too, but they'll also have to wait. Green doesn't have health insurance. She also doesn't have a stable job and finds work as a day laborer when she can through a local temp office.

GREEN: I only make, like, 60, 70-some dollars a day. You know, that ain't making no money. And some days you go in, and they don't have work.

COLOMBINI: In another state, Green may have been able to get on Medicaid, but Florida is one of 11 that still haven't expanded the program to cover more working-age adults. With rent and other bills to pay, Green says her health is taking a back seat.

GREEN: I don't have money to go to the dentist, nothing. It's so expensive. Now, to get one extraction, one tooth pulled, it's, like, 200, 300-some dollars that you don't have. I don't know what to do. It's like fighting a losing battle right now.

COLOMBINI: Nearly 40% of Americans say they put off medical treatment last year due to cost, according to a Gallup poll published in January. It's a 12-point increase from the year before and the highest since Gallup started tracking the issue in 2001. The country experienced record-high inflation last year. And parts of Florida, like nearby Tampa, sometimes fared even worse.

LISA MERRITT: We see an increasing desperation.

COLOMBINI: Dr. Lisa Merritt helped organize this fair as head of the Multicultural Health Institute. Her nonprofit helps people access low-cost care and is based in Newtown. Many people here live below the poverty line, lack insurance and face other challenges.

MERRITT: It's very difficult for people to be concerned about abstract things like getting screenings, regular health maintenance when they're contending with the challenges of basic survival - food, shelter, transportation, often.

COLOMBINI: Longtime volunteer Bonnie Hardy says residents she works with have a lot of financial worries, but one thing tops the list.

BONNIE HARDY: Right now? A place to stay. Housing is horrible.

COLOMBINI: High housing costs have started to ease in recent months, but data shows rent in Sarasota has still gone up nearly 50% since the pandemic began in 2020. Hardy helps people find housing and connects them with programs that cover costs like utilities and security deposits. She says helping people stabilize their day-to-day lives can lead to better health.

HARDY: Because they are more comfortable now. They feel like, hey, the rent is paid. I can let my guards down. Maybe I can go get the medical attention I need.

COLOMBINI: Research shows putting off health care can lead to bigger problems. And in the recent Gallup poll, more than a quarter of respondents admitted they had delayed treatment for serious conditions.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER: That's good.

CRYSTAL CLYBURN: It's high? Is it high?

COLOMBINI: At the health fair, a substitute teacher who doesn't have insurance was getting her blood pressure checked. She found out it was a little high but not enough to need medication.

CLYBURN: Yes. Got to take care of yourself.

COLOMBINI: She smiled with relief. If it had been worse, the health workers here say they'd try to help her find affordable treatment. But in a state like Florida and the economy the way it is, that's not always an option.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini in Sarasota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.