NEW YORK, Mar 10 (Reuters Health) — Care provided by family and friends cuts $200 billion off the nation’s healthcare bill each year, according to a report.

The “economic value of informal caregiving dwarfs the amount the nation now spends for formal home health and nursing home care, yet it is a cost that is not generally recognized,” according to the editors of the journal Health Affairs. The study will be published in the March/April issue of the journal.

From their findings, Peter Arno of Montefiore Medical Center in New York, and colleagues calculated the current market value of the “informal caregiving” provided to patients by an estimated 25.8 million individuals across America. The authors note that many of these caregivers are forced to leave their jobs or take significant amounts of time off from work in order to care for ailing loved ones.

The researchers calculate that it would cost nearly $200 billion in wages if caregivers were compensated at a rate of $8.18 per hour for the estimated 24 billion hours of caregiving they supply per year. At the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, the cost would be around $115 billion.

In a statement, Arno described informal caregivers as “the bedrock of the nation’s chronic care systems.” He believes the American public “needs to find an effective means for supporting and sustaining them.”

President Clinton recently proposed a budgetary increase of $6 billion aimed at helping Americans cover the costs of long-term care for chronically ill patients. This initiative would provide a $1,000 tax credit to either the patient or his or her caregiver. The study authors say they applaud the move, but also advocate further change, such as extending the Family and Medical Leave Act to include workers from smaller companies.