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As more Americans delay health care due to costs, Sarasota doctors work to help residents afford it

Woman in a multicolor dress sits at a folding table while a man in a Florida State University Medical School t-shirt wraps a blood pressure cuff around her arm.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Newtown resident Crystal Clyburn, 51, got her blood pressure checked at a recent community health fair in the Sarasota neighborhood. Since she doesn't have health insurance, Clyburn says free screenings are critical to staying healthy.

A record high number of Americans are putting off medical care because of costs, according to a recent Gallup Poll. It comes as inflation and rising rents make it harder for people to make ends meet.

Tracy Green sat in a folding chair outside a pink and white bus at a recent community health fair in Sarasota's Newtown neighborhood. She came to get a free mammogram because she says cancer runs in her family and her breasts have gotten bigger as she’s aged, causing her severe back pain.

Green, 54, says a doctor once recommended she get reduction surgery, but she hasn’t. She says her teeth are in bad shape too, but they'll also have to wait.

“Because I can’t afford it,” said Green, who doesn’t have health insurance or a stable job, finding temporary work when she can.

“I don't have money to go to the dentist, nothing, it's so expensive,” Green said. “Now, to get one extraction, one tooth pulled, it's like $200-300 that you don't have. So I don't know what to do. It's like fighting a losing battle right now.”

Woman sits in a folding chair outside. She wears a hat and is holding a grocery bag.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Tracy Green, 54, said she has health issues she needs to address but can't afford it due to the rising cost of other essentials like food and housing.

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 the analytics firm started tracking the issue in 2001.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported similar results in 2022. It found people were most likely to delay dental care, followed by vision services and doctor’s office visits. Many didn't take medications as prescribed.

The U.S. experienced record high inflation rates last year. Parts of Florida, including the Tampa metro area, often fared worse than the nation.

“We see an increasing desperation,” said Dr. Lisa Merritt, who helped organize the health fair as executive director of the Multicultural Health Institute in partnership with the Gulf Coast Medical Society, Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s Newtown Internal Medicine Residency Practice, the Greater Newtown Community Redevelopment Corporation and other groups.

Newtown is considered highly vulnerable to health issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index. Many residents live below the poverty line, lack insurance and face other barriers to care.

Graph detailing the record high number of Americans who put off health care due to costs.
Gallup says it saw a sharp increase in the number of Americans delaying health care because of cost.

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

Merritt and her team of "Safekeepers" go out into the community and work to build trust with residents who may not be aware help is available.

At the health fair, volunteer Bonnie Hardy chatted with residents she recognized from her outreach in the area. She didn't have to think twice when asked what the biggest concern is for the people she serves.

“Right now? A place to stay,” said Hardy. “Housing is horrible.”

Though the spike in housing costs has started to calm down in recent months, data shows rent in Sarasota has gone up nearly 50% since the pandemic began in 2020.

Part of her work as a safekeeper involves connecting people with resources that can help them get into housing and cover costs like utilities and security deposits, said Hardy. The goal is to help people stabilize in their day-to-day lives, which can improve health.

“Because they're more comfortable now,” Hardy said. “They feel like, hey the rent is paid I can let my guard down, maybe I can go get the medical attention I need.”

Dr. Lisa Merritt at the Multicultural Health Institute in Sarasota.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Dr. Lisa Merritt runs the Multicultural Health Institute in Sarasota.

Doctors say putting off health care can lead to bigger problems down the line. Authors of the Gallup poll say one of the most concerning findings was that more than 25% of respondents said they delayed treatment for “very or somewhat serious” conditions.

Eric White, 48, can relate. He stumbled on the Newtown community fair after attending church nearby and decided to get his blood pressure checked. Monitoring his health has become a priority for White now that he's in remission from kidney and prostate cancer.

White says he was in pain and felt sick for months leading up to his diagnoses a few years ago. He has health insurance, but anxiety about taking time off work convinced him to ignore his symptoms.

“I ended up missing a lot more work than I wanted to because I didn't take the time out,” White said.” “If I took that one day off of work to get checked out it could have saved me over a year of missing work getting treated.”

This is the type of situation health advocates in Sarasota say they want to help prevent in the community. The Multicultural Health Institute helps residents sign up for free or low-cost health insurance programs to expand access to care. They also host more screening events throughout the year like the recent one in Newtown.

A woman and man wearing lab coats stand in a parking lot in front of a mobile mammography van.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Drs. Vida Farhangi and Washington Hill helped run a community screenings event in Newtown.

Community groups at the fair provided free screenings for diabetes, prostate issues, HIV and other conditions.

Substitute teacher Crystal Clyburn, 51, got a mammogram on the mobile bus and a blood pressure screening at a station run by Sarasota Memorial Hospital. She learned her blood pressure was a little high, and got some advice about how to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t get worse.

Clyburn doesn’t have health insurance and says events like this are critical to staying on top of her health.

“I just try to take advantage of whatever that's out there, whatever that’s free,” she said, adding that she uses social media to learn about opportunities and spread the word to friends and family.

Raising awareness about resources and improving health literacy are also important ways to help expand access to affordable care, said Dr. Vida Farhangi, director of the outpatient residency program at the hospital’s Newtown clinic.

“It’s a huge complex problem but education, prevention, giving a patient that aid, everything that we can do, you know it takes a village,” Farhangi said.

Advocates say the Newtown event, which was held on a Saturday in the heart of the neighborhood, was a successful example of government, nonprofits and the private sector working together.

“When it’s personal, from the same neighborhood or same church, it’s that much more powerful,” Merritt said. “And when it’s in the community versus, ‘Come over to the hospital for this, come over to this clinic for that, during 9-5,’ you know or ‘closed during lunchtime,’ — that’s not accessible.”

Doctors in the community say they want to organize more events in the future. But they say they need more money and continued collaboration to pull it off.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.