Anxiety. Missed appointments. Doctors seeing impact of the government shutdown on patients

Doctor with patient
Doctors are seeing stressed and worried patients as the government shutdown drags on. (Getty/wutwhanfoto)

Melissa Hidde, M.D., is seeing lots of patients whose anxiety is through the roof at the Green Bay, Wisconsin, practice where she works.

And the family practitioner is not alone, as a new survey found that 74% of primary care physicians in the U.S. report that their patients have been affected by the current government shutdown.

“There’s this pervasive, underlying anxiety,” Hidde said.

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And it’s not just patients who work for the federal government who have seen their paychecks dry up, she said in an interview with FierceHealthcare. Patients who rely on food banks, benefits, EBT cards and food stamps are stressed and worried, she said.

Melissa Hidde
Melissa Hidde, M.D. 
(Courtesy of Bellin Health Ashwaubenon)

"They are saying, 'Am I going to have enough money if those safety net programs fall through?'" said Hidde, a doctor at Bellin Health Ashwaubenon.

Like other doctors, she has seen patients cancel appointments and choose between their medications and paying other bills. She’s been writing a lot of prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications.

“I’ve been fortunate I haven’t seen anything more severe,” she said, noting that a partner at the practice had one patient, a government employee who was working without pay, with such increased anxiety she was potentially suicidal.

RELATED: Federal shutdown mostly spares health coverage, but other issues loom

As the partial government shutdown stretched into its fourth week, Hidde said it’s only getting worse.

The survey from InCrowd, a Boston area market insights technology firm to healthcare and life sciences teams, found 58% of all healthcare respondents—including registered nurses and physician assistants along with primary care physicians—report patients have been affected.

Forty percent said they are seeing a high degree of stress in patients over both family finances or loss of benefits. Some reported missed appointments were higher since the shutdown began and also reported patient noncompliance with medication.

To get a sense of the impact the shutdown is having on patients, the American Academy of Family Physicians asked several doctors what they were seeing.

RELATED: Another impact of the government shutdown on healthcare? Legal delays

Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., a family practitioner in Phoenix, said one of her patients, a federal employee impacted by the shutdown, is foregoing physical therapy and is relying on the home exercises she gave him for now.

“He now deems healthcare spending a luxury he will have to cut,” wrote Bhuyan.

In addition to the impact on patients, the InCrowd survey found only 15% of clinics, hospitals and office practices surveyed earlier this month have contingency plans in place to support patients if the shutdown continues.

Hidde said her clinic is lucky to have a community care program in place so it can waive a patient’s co-pay or other costs if they cannot afford to pay. But she says that is unique. And there is access to social workers in the clinic who can help counsel patients. The clinic is in close proximity to a Native American reservation, a group affected by a loss of funds though the federal Indian Health Service.

Providers with contingency plans in place reported that they are still treating patients are not able to afford treatments (29%) with several establishing payment plans (17%) and offering services to secure financial assistance (17%).

“The most frustrating thing is seeing patient that had been previously well controlled in their chronic medical illnesses now become on [out of] control because they cannot afford their medications and are using any money they have for basic needs,” a physician from Ohio, told InCrowd.

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