Although much of the early response to the economic crisis -- EBN's included -- dealth with the blow to Americans' bank accounts and retirement assets, reports now are surfacing on how the financial slide has affected health care decisions for individuals and families.

And like the rest of the news lately, the results are not good.

According to the Washington Post, the economy´s plunge has forced many individuals to cut back on health care - "split pills, forgo screening tests, delay elective procedures and turn to home remedies as cheaper alternatives." The paper also reports that hospital bills are languishing and pharmacists see an increased demand for generic medications.

A study this summer from the Rockefeller Foundation shows that even before the floor fell out of the economy, 25% of respondents skipped a doctor´s visit and 10% skipped a visit for their child because of cost.

In a sneak peek at the December EBN, a report from the Segal Co. finds utilization trend rate for hospital services is projected to fall from 3.2% this year to 2.5% next year, while the utilization trend rate for physician services is predicted to drop from 5.5% to 4.3%. The consulting firm points to cost constraints among consumers as one reason for the decline.

Finally, state insurance programs are feeling the squeeze as well, as news came from Hawaii last week that the state will end its universal children´s health insurance program, just seven months after being the first state to implement such an initiative.

Such news is evidence that when it comes to Americans´ health care today and retirement security tomorrow, benefits managers are employees´ first line of defense. The programs you offer, eliminate or enhance are more important than ever. I know your companies are feeling crunched as well, and benefits are top of mind for execs looking for places to aims the fiscal hatchet or scalpel.

But as Segal reports, "the slowdown in utilization may be cause for concern [because] it could also mean that some people are deferring essential medical care because of higher copays and the personal financial effects of the economic downturn." But "delaying treatment will eventually increase overall health costs as people are forced to seek more aggressive and costly treatment after the condition worsens to a crisis point."

It´s a classic choice of whether to pay now (in robust benefits, preventive care and wellness programs) or pay later (in higher claims, lost productivity and perhaps even turnover). I believe it´s in your best interest to pay now.

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