By James Hammond, Policy and Partnerships Co-ordinator, Richmond Group.
“I’m eating less due to worrying about the affordability of food, increasing fatigue as a result. Trying to save on heating impacts my fibromyalgia and other conditions, cold makes my joints stiffer, tremors worsen and I struggle to regulate my temperature due to fibro.”
Whilst many of us are deeply worried about the cost of living crisis, those concerns are greatest amongst people with long-term health conditions and disabilities.
A survey, conducted by MEL Research for the Richmond Group of Charities, asked 1500 adults across the UK how the cost of living crisis was impacting their health, finances and social activities. Sixty-one per cent of those who identified as disabled said they were strongly worried about the cost of living crisis, compared to 49% of those with no health problems or disabilities.
Before the current crisis, many people with long-term health problems were already struggling financially, often having lower incomes than those with no health conditions and higher health-related costs - 56% of those surveyed who were in the lowest income quintile had one or more long-term health conditions.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest worry across the survey population was the impact of the cost of living crisis on their finances. With this being the case, disabled people were twice as likely to say that the detrimental impact on their health was their greatest concern. The health impact of the cost of living crisis can be broken down into four categories:
1. Healthy eating
“I have to eat healthy foods, which cost a lot more. I cannot eat cheap or low quality, sugary, fatty or salty foods as my Crohns disease suffers badly.”
The cost of food has risen significantly, especially healthier options which tend to be more expensive anyway. This impacts people living with long-term conditions or disabilities disproportionately, as many are required to follow special diets for health reasons. 41% of disabled people surveyed said they were now less able to eat well and healthily in comparison to 29% of those who were not disabled.
2. Mental wellbeing
“I don’t go out much anymore and socialise which is depressing. I don’t eat well because I prefer my money to go on my kids eating well."
"I have always suffered from anxiety & depression. My energy bill has gone from £80 a month to £250 in a year. I have 3 young children. I'm extremely distressed with how I'm going to support my family"
Many people said the extra worry about rising living costs has had a damaging impact on their mental well-being. The increased cost of social activities has led many to forego them, leaving them feeling more isolated. Thirty-eight per cent of disabled respondents said that the cost of living crisis has adversely affected their mental health, compared to 18% of non-disabled people.
3. Impact of using less energy
“I am afraid to turn the heating on, which harms my osteoarthritis.”
People with disabilities often have increased energy costs, for example, because they are housebound or unable to work. Many are now choosing to cut down on heating their homes due to the ballooning fuel bills.
4. Access to treatment
“I was very recently admitted to hospital with heart failure. If I want to get a taxi to the hospital, it costs me £50 each way.”
“Because of the high food prices, I had to cancel a hospital appointment as I did not have the bus fare to get there.”
The rising costs of fuel are affecting those who need to travel to attend medical appointments. Some of the people we surveyed are having to make very difficult choices, for example, between eating and travelling to the hospital.
The picture is stark. The current cost of living crisis is hitting those in poor health the hardest. Forty-nine per cent of disabled people said they were worse off mentally, compared to 36% of non-disabled people, whilst 41% said their physical health had declined in comparison to 25% of non-disabled people.
The Government needs to do far more to tackle the unequal impact of the cost of living crisis on sick and disabled people. Whilst the £150 cost of living payment for disability benefit recipients and the Energy Price Guarantee (EPG) are certainly welcome, much more needs to be done. For example, sick and disabled people will often have higher fuel bills than the typical £2,500 household. As the EPG is a cap on the unit price of energy, people with health conditions, who use more units, will still be facing staggeringly high bills.
As we said in our recent report, No time to lose, we find ourselves at a point where the twin impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the current cost of living crisis have significantly changed the health trajectory of people with long-term health conditions, many of whom are now in poorer health than they would have otherwise been. Measures aimed at mitigating the financial impact of the cost of living crisis will not, on their own, change that trajectory. The Government must start to tackle the underlying challenges facing the health and care system. We need a credible and funded workforce plan, a sustainable social care funding solution and a national programme to improve long-term condition care.
Failure to do so will mean that the 14 million people in England with long-term health conditions will continue to be the hardest hit by current and future crises both in the health system and the wider economy.