Month: May 2017

So Much Misunderstanding about Health Care

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As I was looking through Twitter yesterday, I came upon a meme that really grabbed me because, unfortunately, I think it accurately describes many people’s uninformed attitudes about the place of health insurance in their lives and how it is best managed. Yet, I don’t totally blame most people because the “health care” systems and insurance companies are putting in a great effort to deceive people and make them feel totally dependent on insurance “coverage.”

This meme showed two conflicting statements:

  • One guy states that a sonogram costs $150 if the payment is in cash.
  • The other guy replies, “I’d rather pay the $800 and get credit toward my deductible.”

How crazy is this?

Unfortunately this is a common attitude in our country today. Such an attitude may be the result of people’s natural fear that, somehow or another, they will incur some huge medical bill, and want to be at least partly paid up on their deductible when that disaster happens. However, what if that disaster does not happen in that same year? What if the sonogram is almost the only medical service one receives in the year outside of possibly the follow-up visit to the doctor for the results of the sonogram and a few other routine visits?

I would argue that if a minimal amount of health care is needed in the year that person paid $800 to have a sonogram go through their insurance “coverage,” they probably paid $650 more than necessary just to have that bill count toward their deductible. Not to mention, every year the deductible is wiped clean and starts at zero for the next year. One exception to that rule would be the situation in which some insurance companies allow deductibles accumulated in the last quarter of the year to apply to the next year. However, eventually, the deductible will be reset back to zero.

Another issue with this mentality is that the $800 sonogram paid toward the insurance deductible was most likely based on a negotiated reimbursement rate between one’s insurance company and the service provider. The trick in this negotiation is that the provider (hospitals are generally guilty of this one) charges some outrageous fee and the insurance company has contracted with that provider to pay a lesser amount that may still be fairly ridiculous. The actual charge to the insurance company for the sonogram that was costing the patient $800 is probably much more, and the $800 is considered a “discount,” but only in the insurer/provider universe.

According to an article by Jed Lipinski in the Times-Picayune entitled, “Can’t bring myself to give them that money: Finding out your $284 blood test costs $34 nearby,” (1) a woman found out how insurance companies operate with health systems, much to her chagrin. She had a blood test, a comprehensive metabolic panel for kidney and liver function, done and received a bill from Tulane University Medical Center for $323. The article reported that this patient’s insurance company determined that she owed $284 of that $323. The real clincher was that the same test was available at a nearby lab called Quest Diagnostics for $34.

Now this woman had not made a deliberate choice to pay a large amount instead of a smaller amount to count toward her deductible and clearly felt blindsided by the bill she received. However, I am guessing from my personal experience, that she probably had the blood drawn conveniently at the medical center where she saw her doctor and then analyzed by whatever lab is contracted by Tulane to perform that service.

Another issue here is that it usually all appears so convenient to have one’s blood drawn at the same location as the doctor’s office and patients can just show their card at the front so the insurance carrier is billed for all services. Of course, nobody at the medical center is going to tell patients they can get a better deal elsewhere.

I think that the mentality that one might as well apply all their medical care to their deductible is prevalent because most people assume that ALL health care services are expensive by nature. So why not? Surely they may end up getting their deductible paid off sooner or later in a year because every time they see a doctor or get a medical test, it is guaranteed to be expensive. I believe that is also the reason the Congressional Budget Office attempts to make people panic about repealing and replacing Obamacare – because all medical care is, by nature, expensive so everyone must be “covered.”

However, as the story I just related demonstrates, that is not necessarily true.

I think it’s time that we all become true health care consumers and not blithely stick out our arm or head to a large medical center’s radiology department when we get test orders from the doctor we just saw there. Besides the option of Direct Primary Care in which many common lab tests are available with the cost of a monthly membership, we can look around if the physician we want to keep doesn’t happen to be a DPC doctor. When we have that lab test or x-ray order in our hot little hands, let’s change our mode of operation and ask ourselves, “Can I get this test less expensively somewhere else?”

Maybe we can, maybe we can’t, but why not ask the question?

Better pricing is often available if we shop around, and let’s certainly re-examine our attitudes about paying higher prices just to work toward a deductible. Who knows? If enough people made a habit of shopping around for procedures, the big bad health systems and their crony insurance partners just might think twice about their ridiculous charges and charge something more in line with reality.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one though.

Sources for further reading:

  1. http://www.nola.com/health/index.ssf/2017/05/blood_tests_new_orleans.html

 

Photo courtesy of canstockphoto.com


Where is Obamacare Repeal Going?

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There seems to be a temporary lull, as far as I have been hearing, regarding the progress of the American Health Care Act. This is mainly because a whole host of scandals are swirling around Washington, D.C. regarding a Russian connection to the Trump campaign, the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey, and one about whether President Donald Trump gave away some classified information to Russian officials during a meeting.

I think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is right in saying that less drama from the White House would help the Senate to concentrate on matters that affect the everyday lives of American people.

One of those issues would be health care in the United States and how to repair this very broken system that has become far too dependent on insurance coverage and government intervention. Although the talk in the media for the last week and a half has discussed the scandal du jour ad nauseam, it looks like there is a little bit of work regarding the nation’s health care policies going on in the background. Once again, it seems like some kind of “deadline” looms that is making Senate Republicans think that they may have to do something before June 21.

Why?

According to an article in the online publication Axios (1), this is the date by which insurers have to make a final decision regarding whether or not they will sell insurance  for 2018 on the federal Obamacare exchanges. I am not sure if the states with their own exchanges have alternate deadlines.

So, if the Senate can ignore the White House drama and plug away at the American Health Care Act that is now before it, they have a tough choice to make because they are faced with either passing a short-term stabilization bill of some kind to make sure that there actually insurers on most of the exchanges or try to work on the larger package of health care reform in a way that it could be passed and signed into law in time for that deadline. With all the deep division between the two major parties, as well as between different positions within the Republican party, I am not placing any bets on passing a larger package of sensible free market reforms that could be signed into law by the president in time for the June 21 decision crunch.

So what’s the Senate to do?

According to the Axios article, the Senate has the following options to consider:

  • Go ahead and fund the subsidies so the few remaining exchange insurers would know what they are dealing with in 2018 and would remain on the exchanges, at least for the coming year. (Hopefully such an action would only be considered temporary to provide a “bridge,” so to speak, as the Senate gives more in-depth consideration concerning the best way to repeal and replace Obamacare.)
  • Pass a bill by Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker that would allow people to use premium subsidies to buy health care insurance not offered on the exchanges, which looks like it would only be available in areas where there are no insurance companies on the exchanges. (Once again, I hope this would only be a band-aid solution while the Senate mulls over the best way forward for a free market in health care.)
  • They could always just take their time to put out a bill, regardless of insurance decision deadlines, that allows a free market in health care that can really make health care and insurance affordable for the average person. (There is a great risk of widespread chaos in this scenario, but then maybe it is time for many people to have the government pacifier yanked out of their mouths; they may cry a lot for a while, but then those who know better could direct the ones being broken of their dependency into health care options that are so much better than what we have now.)
  • There may also be another option because Axios also reported that Senator Claire McCaskill has indicated she is planning to introduce a bill as well, but has not revealed anything about it.

Maybe I was at least partially wrong in one of my earlier blogs, when I said Congress needs to take their time to get health care reform right. On the other hand, the Senate cannot slap something together that can get passed and claim they have done the job for the American people. When that happens, I fear that people will just get used to the “new normal” and expect to always be able to buy insurance whenever and wherever they want with a subsidy from the government, which could be just as destructive as Obamacare.

The Senate prospects also look difficult because Republicans only have a narrow majority, so there will be very intense division in trying to repeal a law that Democrats doggedly defend.

For my part, I am going to try my best to communicate with my Utah senators, as well as other key senators, to impress upon them the necessity of getting health care reform right, and familiarizing them with some free market innovations they may not know about that can drive down health care costs without the involvement of insurance.

Source:

  1. https://www.axios.com/senate-grapples-with-looming-health-care-deadline-2411779537.html

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Almost Everybody is Missing the Point

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Every day the American Health Care Act is discussed in the media, most of the dialogue I hear is about how many people will lose their “coverage” or have their “health care” literally ripped away from them if the AHCA is successfully passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump. That’s quite a picture!

Such discussion only hammers home one major truth to me – most people have become so accustomed to having the availability of health care defined as whether or nor we have insurance coverage with supposedly convenient copays. It seems that the conventional “wisdom,” if you could all it that, is those without health insurance coverage do not have health care.  After all, health care itself is WAY to expensive to pay for it ourselves. Right?

This impression becomes further entrenched when patients inquiring about what a medical or surgical procedure might cost them generally get a non-answer like, “Well that depends on your insurance plan.”  Let’s say that I am either unfortunate, or fortunate, enough not to have health insurance in the current environment of narrow networks and “non-profit health care” systems that are raking up huge surpluses (i.e. profits). What if I first tell someone at a typical hospital I am not covered by any insurance and then ask how much a procedure will cost? It’s a toss-up as to whether they will quote me the “Chargemaster” price (think grossly inflated) or whether they will say, “We have discounts for our cash-paying patients.” (Fat chance of that.) I am betting that they would quote me the grossly inflated price first. Then, when I balk in horror, and ask if I can get a discount for paying cash, they will quote me something much more doable.

I just saw (and actually retweeted) a tweet this week that was actually a short snipped of the movie, “The Matrix,” a movie I have generally said I did not like (amid gasps of horror from my husband and son). I am thinking I may have to give that movie another chance. But I digress. In this little snippet, Laurence Fishburne’s character (Morpheus) says, “You have to understand that most of these people are not ready to be unplugged, and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

That is what I see happening as the efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare go forward … people protesting in the streets, pleading to keep their “health care” in town hall meetings, and Democrat representatives and senators howling about mostly “guestimates” from the Congressional Budget Office that as many as 24 million people (a very suspect statistic) could lose health “coverage.”

What if basic health care was so inexpensive for the average person that the only occasion for which the average person would need insurance coverage would be situations like a cancer or other horrible diagnosis or accident? Yes, those things can happen to anyone at anytime, and it is nice to feel that we could have some protection from the curve balls of life that we cannot control.

However, there is so much routine care that should not even require insurance to pay for it – the annual check up, a cold or flu visit, even diabetes management – the issues for which we usually see a primary care practitioner.

There is a type of medical practice that is continuing to gain popularity as primary care doctors get burned out and tired of the same old song and dance from Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial insurance. Many primary care physicians are ditching third party payers entirely and establishing Direct Primary Care practices. These practices are third-party free, which means they do not bill or accept payment from Medicare, Medicaid, or commercial insurers. Instead, they have very reasonable pricing for the services they offer, well below the standard Obamacare premiums and deductibles. Most of them offer a wide array of services for a low monthly membership.

For example, one doctor that I am interviewing for an article I am working on now has monthly service fees of $55 for adults 19-69 years of age, $35 per child 18 years of age and younger, and $75 for seniors aged 70 years and older. Additionally, families of four (2 parents and two dependent children 25 years of age or younger) can have a monthly membership for $130.

What do patients get for this pricing?

  • Communications (phone, text, emails) with doctor and nurse.
  • Clinic visits (regular hours) when necessary
  • Yearly wellness and prevention planning
  • Some routine labs and tests
  • Medical equipment lease (crutches, etc.)
  • Annual flu shot
  • Access to discounted wholesale pricing on other services (labs, medications, procedures, etc.)

Another DPC practice has prices in the same range, more or less – $50/month for adults 20-45 years old; $10/month for each child with at least one parent as a member; $75/month for adults 45-64 years of age; and $100/month for seniors aged 65 years and older. Benefits in terms of access to care are somewhat similar, especially in terms of free office visits, after-hours communications with the doctor, wholesale medication and lab costs.

One person on a Twitter feed I frequent reported that their family premium is $1,600 per month with an annual deductible of $8,000. That family most likely has copays or coinsurance in addition to the frightfully high premium, so it is easy to see that access is much less expensive and available in a DPC practice.

So while many people fuss and whine about “losing their health care” and the Democrats go practically apoplectic over the AHCA, the real solution to health care access and costs is sitting right under our noses.

I would like everyone who reads this post to contact their senator (since that is where the bill is now) and tell them that the AHCA needs to be at least changed to allow free market access and cost solutions like Direct Primary Care. Please educate yourselves about Direct Primary Care, and other free market medical care solutions like ambulatory surgery centers with transparent pricing, because they can solve so many of our nation’s health care problems.

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It’s Half-Done Anyway, but Hopefully Not Half-Baked

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Close up of female African American doctor holding patient’s hand

For those who have been struggling under the intolerable burdens of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (affectionately or less affectionately known as Obamacare), this has been an encouraging day. Why? The United States House of Representatives passed the newest version of the American Health Care Act with the purpose of repealing and replacing Obamacare.

This is definitely a hurdle jumped, especially since the House was not able to pass the original version of the AHCA. Apparently there were too many problems with it in the eyes of the House Freedom caucus, the more conservative wing of the Republican party. So some celebration is in order. However, this bill still has a tough road ahead as it makes its way through the Senate.

I really was not sure what would happen. I honestly was concerned that the Republicans would blow their chance to get rid of what I consider a law that’s hated by many people and only lauded by a few. Even the Democrats talked about “improving” Obamacare, although ironically their solution would be to make our health care system worse because it would involve even more strong-arm government control.

I learned, through the last episode in March, not to try to go through an entire bill and try to explain it while trying to translate governmentese without a translator. However, I am well aware of one of the most difficult sticking points in the bill – the issue of how our nation addresses the problem of pre-existing conditions.

Pre-existing conditions are a tough issue because I personally believe that the vast majority of Americans, myself included, want everyone to have access to medical care, whether they are already sick or not. However, some Economics 101 comes into play here. How do we take care of those of us who are less fortunate while allowing much more freedom of choice to the healthier members of our society and not forcing them to pay for someone else’s health problems unless they personally choose to do that?

When Obamacare became the law of the land, guaranteed issue became mandatory that, in effect, required insurance companies to cover citizens whether or not they had pre-existing conditions. Then the “community rating” scheme required that insurance companies not charge those with pre-existing conditions any higher premiums than any one else. As a result, everyone paid the high costs of covering people who already had some kind of illness. This caused premiums to continue soaring year after year after the implementation of Obamacare because insurance companies continued to lose money covering very sick people.

The money lost by insurance companies has continued to grow to such levels that over the last couple of years, several big insurers have withdrawn from the Obamacare exchanges where people needing to buy insurance in the individual market have had fewer and fewer choices.

As the House Republicans celebrated their victory in passing the controversial bill in the White House Rose Garden, Representative Paul Ryan said that it is very important that the AHCA not only pass the House but pass the Senate as well.

“The problems facing American families are real, and the problems facing American families as a result of Obamacare are just too dire and too urgent,” Ryan said. “Just this week we learned of another state, Iowa, where the last remaining health care plan is pulling out of 94 of their 99 counties, leaving most of their citizens with no plans on the Obamacare market at all.  What kind of protection is Obamacare if there are no plans to choose from?”(1)

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also made the point that it is difficult to care for people with pre-existing conditions when there is no care at all. Now the point he was making was that there were areas where there would be no chance for people with pre-existing conditions to have their care covered by insurance plans if there were no insurance plans. Of course, while his point is valid that one cannot get their pre-existing conditions covered by insurance if there are simply no insurance plans to cover them, I would like to point out that it doesn’t mean these people could not actually get care. The question is how would that care get paid for? This is a question for another day.

Although I certainly appreciate the sentiment that insurance coverage for people who are already sick would be very helpful, there are other ways – free market ways – for these people to receive excellent care at a low cost. It’s called Direct Primary Care, which I will discuss at length in my next post.