Rising costs force millions of Americans to choose between paying health care and utility bills

Senior woman sorting medication alongside light bill and phone calculator. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images(2))
A woman sorting medication alongside a light bill and phone calculator. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images [2]) (Getty Images)

In her 20 years as a registered nurse, Christen Nelson says she has never seen so many of her patients have to make such dire financial decisions, choosing between paying either their health care or rising utility bills.

As a home health care aide in Myrtle Beach, S.C., who works specifically with elderly patients, Nelson has a unique vantage point on her patients’ lives. She says rising costs due to inflation have forced many of her roughly 70 patients on fixed incomes to resort to juggling which bills to pay.

“As utility costs, food costs, everything is going up, they're not getting an increase in their Social Security benefits,” Nelson told Yahoo News. “They're having to choose between food, utilities and medication.”

The people Nelson cares for aren’t alone. Roughly 1 in 6 U.S. homes, or more than 20 million, are currently behind on their utility bills, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA).

An overdue bill says: Account overdue, please remit.
Close-up of an overdue bill. (Lambert/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Financial circumstances have become so grim, Nelson says, that some patients are also resorting to splitting pills to ration them over a prolonged period of time, or going without medication for days. Others have gone without eating meals or paying certain bills to get by.

“It's really a sad state of affairs,” she said.

Many of the half-dozen patients Nelson sees on a daily basis are representative of a growing number of Americans skipping medical treatment or cutting back on medication altogether for fear of not having enough money to cover housing and food. An estimated 98 million Americans skipped care or cut back on basic needs to cover rising medical costs, according to new polling released this month by a West Health-Gallup poll.

As inflation hit a new four-decade high of 9.1% in June, many Americans have had to make tough decisions about what gets paid and what has to wait.

“People have been making tradeoffs to pay for health care for years,” Timothy A. Lash, president of West Health, said in a press release. “Inflation has only made things worse as people are also now struggling with the high price of gas, food and electricity.”

Gas prices, with the most expensive price per gallon at $5.79, are displayed at a California gas station.
Prices at a gas station in Monterey Park, Calif., on July 19. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

A spike in electricity prices prompted by a rise in the cost of natural gas has left many Americans in a situation where they cannot keep up. According to an August report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, energy prices rose 1.6% nationally in July, the third straight month of hikes greater than than 1%. Annually, energy prices are 15.2% higher than the same time last year, the biggest annual jump in 16 years.

Yet experts are reluctant to say that relief for consumers will arrive anytime soon.

“The slowing economic growth here and abroad will soften demand somewhat, but not enough to cut the price of energy significantly on a continuing basis,” Sung Won Sohn, president of SS Economics, an economic consulting firm focused on the U.S. economy, told the Sacramento Bee.

Households nationwide owe a combined $16 billion in unpaid utility bills, according to NEADA — double the pre-pandemic total. Overall, the average balance owed by consumers has risen nearly 100% since 2019, to $792.

In an effort to keep up, many Americans have turned to the gig economy to try to keep the lights on.

“I deliver with #GrubHub. I cannot afford my car payment, let alone rent and utilities, cause of increased gas prices,” Kansas resident Debra Axon wrote on Twitter. “Tips are also down. One order today was over 15 miles for only $2. I am looking for a better gig. I help out my friend, Kamsa, but not paid yet.”

A delivery driver for Grubhub uses her personal car for deliveries.
A delivery driver for Grubhub uses her personal car for deliveries in Newton, Mass. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff Photo) (Boston Globe via Getty Images)

While some Americans are hoping Washington will do more to address the situation, labor experts caution against too much government intervention, particularly, too soon.

“The government can do a lot, but unfortunately, a lot of times it makes the problem worse,” Joel Suarez, an assistant professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, told Yahoo News. “Interest rate hikes are deliberately designed to ‘cool off’ the economy, which is a euphemism for increasing unemployment and throwing millions of people out of work. That’s certainly one way to bring down prices, but it’s one of those ‘The operation was a success, but the patient died’ situations.”

As blistering summer temperatures continue to blanket large portions of the country, keeping the electricity on can be a matter of life or death. In 2021, 190 people died in the U.S. from heat, an 80% rise in average heat-related fatalities from the previous decade, according to the National Weather Service.

But as summer gives way to fall and temperatures begin to moderate, the economic crisis won’t be over.

“I expect a tsunami of shut-offs,” Jean Su, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Bloomberg.

A person changes a light bulb.
A person changes a light bulb as electricity prices hit record highs. (Marta Fernandez Jara/Europa Press via Getty Images) (Europa Press via Getty Images)

Nelson, a married mom of three, admits that despite also personally feeling the strain of rising costs, she’s optimistic that given recent moves by the government to relieve student loan debt, Congress will ensure that things get better sooner than later.

“I do think there's a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “The student loan relief is going to help out lots of people. I think it will free up some income for people to be able to afford more food, gas and contribute to the economy. I think they're working hard trying to help the average man.”


Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)