Americans who become seriouslyill often feel confused and helpless, experience major problemswith their care or, even if they have health insurance, face therisk of financial ruin. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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Lots of Americans who can least afford the additional stress are being left in the dirt bythe U.S. health care system, says a new joint study from the Commonwealth Fund, The NewYork Times and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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The goal of the report “is to understand whether our health caresystem is doing all it can do not just to treat illness but to helppeople cope with illness.” Exploring such areas as where the systemfails to meet people's needs, how it's “adding to already heavy burdens” and whether the mostseriously ill can even afford the care provided by the healthsystem, the study found plenty of room for improvement.

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Related: Health plans largely neglecting members withchronic conditions

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Not just the sickest among us—those with multiplehospitalizations and doctor visits, many for serious illnesses likeheart disease, cancer, and stroke—but also adults caring for friends or family members withserious illnesses were polled in the survey, which asked abouthospital stays, interactions with health professionals and healthinsurance companies and experiences paying for care.

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The results were not cheering. Initial findings, according toNYT, indicate that Americans who become seriously ill often feelconfused and helpless (62 percent), experience major problems withtheir care (61 percent) or, even if they have health insurance,face the risk of financial ruin (53 percent).

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Close to half experience emotional or psychological problems,while a third report symptoms of social isolation—which can weighon potential recovery from their ills.

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Despite improvements in care itself—such as once-a-day pillsinstead of chemotherapy regimens, treatments and cures for diseasesonce untreatable and technological improvements that improvequality of life for the seriously disabled—American health carealso “places unexpected and unnecessary burdens on the sick,”making people struggle to get the care they need and have to chaseappropriate services across the system because of fragmentation andlack of coordination of treatments and services. And that's toughwhen they're already suffering from the original ailment.

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Then there's the financial burden borne by many who findthemselves mired in long-term financial problems, such as not beingable to pay for food, heat or housing and having to fight offcollection agencies.

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The study suggests steps to be taken to improve the way healthcare functions, but under the current system—“which results fromthe choices made by policymakers, practitioners, payers, andothers”—it says that the sick end up with additional burdens beyondillness.

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Marlene Satter

Marlene Y. Satter has worked in and written about the financial industry for decades.