Low-income Californians and Health Care


Despite its large economy, California is also the state with the highest poverty rate (19 percent) according to the U.S. Census Bureau.1 As Governor Gavin Newsom begins his tenure in office, Californians across income groups see health care as a key issue for the new governor and legislature to address. In late 2018, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the California Health Care Foundation conducted a representative survey of the state’s residents to gauge their views on health policy priorities and their experiences in California’s health care system. This summary examines key findings from the survey among “low-income” Californians, defined here as those whose self-reported incomes are below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (approximately $49,000 for a family of four). Where relevant, they are compared to higher-income Californians — those with self-reported incomes at or above 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Half of low-income Californians say that someone in their family has delayed or forgone medical or dental treatment in the past year due to costs, this @KaiserFamFound / @CHCFNews survey finds.

Overall, the survey finds that while Californians at all income levels see health care as an important priority for the governor and legislative leaders to work on, health care affordability and access emerge as particularly prominent concerns among low-income residents of the state. Key findings include:

  • Affordability of health care has affected treatment decisions for many low-income Californians, with over half saying that in the past year, they or someone in their family has delayed or forgone some type of medical or dental treatment due to costs.
  • Californians with low incomes are almost twice as likely as higher-income residents to say they have had problems paying medical bills. As a result, many of those who experienced difficulty paying medical bills say they have had to cut back spending in other areas, use savings, or borrow money.
  • Low-income Californians are also more likely than other residents to report nonfinancial barriers to accessing health care, such as long wait times to get an appointment. A majority of Californians with low incomes say their community does not have enough mental health providers, and about four in ten say their community lacks enough primary care doctors and specialists to meet the needs of residents.
  • The distinctive health care experience of low-income Californians is also evident in their attitudes toward Medi-Cal. While overwhelming majorities of Californians across income levels say Medi-Cal is important to the state, low-income Californians are twice as likely as those with higher incomes to say the program is important to them and their families.

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The independent source for health policy research, polling, and news, KFF is a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, California.