PUMPING IRONY: Dwindling Options

The recent shuttering of the clinic we’ve relied upon for years reminds me of the many ways the pandemic has hindered access to healthcare across the country.

Several chairs in a waiting room are pictured.

Our favorite healthcare provider, a husband-and-wife team practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine, informed us last week that the clinic we’ve been visiting for years was closing for good. Shuttered first by the state’s pandemic lockdown and then destroyed by a fire during the riots following George Floyd’s death, this unconventional neighborhood infirmary had no chance of recovery.

While mourning the loss of a trusted practitioner, My Lovely Wife and I recognize that we’re among the more fortunate of our geezer counterparts across the country. Gainfully employed and in reasonably good health, we may eventually seek out another provider; for millions of other folks, though, COVID-19 has seriously disrupted access to healthcare.

A recent survey found that three out of four Americans have postponed or canceled doctor appointments, shifted to online consultations, stockpiled prescriptions, or rationed medications as a result of the pandemic. Part of the mindset change comes from the understandable fear of contracting the virus in a doctor’s office and public-health orders limiting elective medical procedures, but it’s also a product of the historic economic downturn. For the multitudes out of work and uninsured, a clinic visit is simply unaffordable.

The results of the April poll, published last week by a GoodRx research team, showed that 65 percent of respondents canceled or rescheduled a doctor appointment due to COVID-19 and 27 percent opted for a virtual consultation. Slightly more than half of those surveyed reported concerns about accessing medication. And, as you might expect, it’s low-income workers who have been hit the hardest: Those earning less than $20,000 a year comprised just 16 percent of the respondents but accounted for 28 percent of those who had lost their healthcare coverage.

“Within two months, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the way many Americans access, use, and pay for healthcare,” GoodRx health economist Amanda Nguyen, PhD, writes. “These disruptions to healthcare use, medication supply, and insurance coverage will likely have a lasting effect on patient health and the healthcare system at large.”

An earlier survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that about a third of those respondents who had delayed seeking healthcare since the pandemic struck planned to wait more than three months before considering a visit to their doctor — or simply continue to put it off.

Writing in the New York Times, Reed Abelson describes the conundrum Thomas Chapman faced after he was laid off from his job as a sales director. Though he suffers from hypertension and diabetes, the 64-year-old Chapman chose not to refill his prescriptions for two months. “I stopped taking everything when I just couldn’t pay anymore,” he says.

With his legs swelling and lethargy setting in, Chapman finally asked his doctor and pharmacist about less expensive alternatives, but without insurance his options are limited until he qualifies for Medicare.

In hard-hit areas like New York City, the trend to delay care became clear early on. People suffering from acute conditions, including heart attacks and serious fractures, simply refused to travel to the ER. “It was as if they disappeared, but they didn’t disappear,” Jack Choueka, chair of orthopedics at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, tells Abelson. “People were dying [at] home; they just weren’t coming into the hospital.”

I certainly understand the impulse to avoid hospitals — and doctor’s offices. Long before the pandemic struck, MLW and I stayed clear of the medical-pharmaceutical complex, despite my Medicare coverage and my employer’s generous healthcare plan. So, unlike so many of our elderly cohort, we’ll muddle through this moment without having to face any harsh repercussions. We won’t be visiting our “doctor” anymore, but we’ll continue to do what we can to remain upright and ambulatory. With any luck, we — and those facing more challenges than us — will get to the other side of the pandemic more or less intact.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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