Posts Tagged ‘Out-of-pocket costs’

Medical Bills Major Cause of Bankruptcies

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Most Americans are just one illness away from bankruptcy – even those with healthcare insurance.  Unfortunately, there are millions of other Americans who don’t have the cash to cover their medical bills.  Hospitals expect quick payment and offer insured patients little flexibility if they have difficulty paying bills.  Those unpaid bills are sent to collection agencies, and damage the individual’s credit history for years.  The crisis in American healthcare is not restricted to emergency rooms where uninsured people wait – often for long periods of time — for care.

In fact, a study has estimated that as many as 62.1 percent of all bankruptcies are due – at least in part – to medical expenses that the person simply cannot afford to pay.  And, according to the study’s authors, that might well be a conservative estimate.

“Unless you’re a Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, you’re one illness away from financial ruin in this country,” said Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., of the Harvard Medical School.  “If an illness is long enough and expensive enough, private insurance offers very little protection against medical bankruptcy, and that’s the major finding in our study.”

Yet, 75 percent of the people with a medically-related bankruptcy had health insurance.  “That was actually the predominant problem in patients in our study — 78 percent of them had health insurance, but many of them were bankrupted anyway because there were gaps in their coverage like co-payments and deductibles and uncovered services,” Woolhandler said.  “Other people had private insurance but got so sick that they lost their job and lost their insurance.”

Even patients who have coverage “may not be protected from high out-of-pocket costs when they are diagnosed with cancer,” according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the American Cancer Society.  In addition to high insurance premiums, those costs may force patients to amass debt as they attempt to pay for the care they need — or postpone or skip lifesaving treatment.  “Having insurance increases people’s ability to access care,” said Mark Rukavina, an expert on medical debt and the executive director of The Access Project, a Boston-based healthcare advocacy group.  “The good news is that they get the care, but the bad news is it’s unaffordable.”

The days of Cadillac health plans are pretty much over,” said Peter Cunningham of the Center for Studying Health System Change in Washington, which found that 20 percent of American families have problems paying medical bills.  More than 44 million Americans currently are paying off medical debt, the Commonwealth Fund said, an increase over the 37 million in 2005.  Two years ago, Congress reported that 30 million Americans of working age had been contacted by a collection agency for unpaid medical bills.  One survey asks how people have been affected by their unpaid medical bills.  “Two-thirds of people say … they’ve had problems paying for some of the basic necessities — food, rent, mortgage, clothes, basic stuff,” Cunningham said. “They’ve put off major purchases.  They’ve taken money out of savings or borrowed money.  An increasing number consider filing for bankruptcy.”

Although it’s not yet known how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) will impact medical bankruptcies, a study from Massachusetts since its healthcare reform became effective in 2006 offers scant good news. The study, which was published in the American Journal of Medicine, determined that between early 2007 and mid-2009, the share of all Massachusetts bankruptcies with medical grounds fell from 59.3 percent to 52.9 percent, a 6.4 percent decrease.  Because there was a sudden rise in total bankruptcies during that period, medical bankruptcy filings in the state rose from 7,504 in 2007 to 10,093 in 2009.

According to the study’s authors, “Even before the changes in healthcare laws, most medical bankruptcies in Massachusetts – as in other states – afflicted middle-class families with health insurance.  High premium costs and gaps in coverage – co-payments, deductibles and uncovered services – often left insured families liable for substantial out-of-pocket costs.”

“Despite a marked decline in the un-insurance rate in Massachusetts since the implementation of health reform, the proportion of bankruptcies that occurred in the wake of medical problems has not decreased significantly, and the absolute number of medical bankruptcies has actually increased by one third,” said David U. Himmelstein, M.D., from City University of New York School of Public Health, and the study’s lead author.

Healthcare Costs Have Doubled in Just Nine Years

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

"Where does it hurt?"

American families have seen their healthcare costs rise by more than 50 percent over the last nine years, a trend that shows no sign of reversing, according to a report from the actuarial consulting firm Milliman, Inc.

Healthcare show few signs of dropping, according to a report released Wednesday by the actuarial consulting firm.  When you add in employers’ contributions, this year’s total healthcare cost for a family of four more than doubled to $19,393 from the $9,235 reported in 2002.  The 2011 figure represents a seven percent increase compared with 2010.  The primary reason for the rising costs are primarily due to price increases in categories like pharmacy, inpatient or outpatient hospital care and doctors’ office visits.  Lorraine Mayne, one of the report’s authors, said these charge increases are a bigger factor than changes in how Americans use healthcare.  Even the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which started phasing in during 2010 and aims to eventually cover millions of uninsured people, had virtually no impact on healthcare costs in 2011, Mayne said.  She doesn’t believe that new law will have any “direct, immediate impact” on the trend.

In an important finding, the study found that employers are making workers shoulder an even bigger share of total health care expenses.   The employee portion of costs paid for a family of four covered by employer-sponsored health insurance will rise to approximately $8,008 this year from $3,634 in 2002.  That is an additional $84 a week from household budgets for healthcare.  Of the $1,319 yearly increase, workers’ out-of-pocket costs rose 9.2 percent in 2011.  That outpaced the 6.6 percent increase in 2010.  Payroll deductions for insurance coverage climbed 9.3 percent this year, an increase over the previous year.  Adding insult to injury, employers’ share of their workers’ healthcare costs fell six percent in 2010, compared with eight percent the previous year.  Of the $19,393 annual cost, employees’ share is moving closer to 50 percent, according to Mayne.  “Employees are paying $8,000 of the $19,000.  That’s a decent amount much larger than other areas of consumer spending.  What we’ve observed in the past few years is employers have increasingly been offering health plans with higher deductibles and co-insurance, co-payment limits,” she said.

The rise in outpatient care is making the difference. For three consecutive years, outpatient care has led all other categories in cost increases – as high as 90 percent.  “Unit costs are increasing both because the same services have increased in price and also because new, more expensive services continue to emerge,” the report says.  Hospital costs represent the second reason for last year’s increase (for the most part because acute care is so expensive), followed by physician care, drug costs, and other types of care, such as durable medical equipment and home healthcare.  People can rein in some costs by moving to a different part of the country, according to Milliman.

Healthcare was costliest in Miami,  where spending averaged $23,362.  New York came in second at $22,785 and Chicago third at $21,996  The three lowest-cost cities were Phoenix, which averaged $17,336; Atlanta, which averaged $18,292; and Seattle, which averaged $18,536.  “These cost differences result from variation in local practice patterns and from differing costs for health care goods and services,” said Chris Girod, a Milliman principal and consulting actuary.

The Affordable Care Act: A Tale of Two Studies

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

A study of medical bills under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) determined that most households will be able to afford premiums and related expenses after paying bills for food, child care, transportation and other necessities, according to the Commonwealth Fund. The mission of The Commonwealth Fund is to promote a high performing health care system that achieves better access, improved quality, and greater efficiency, particularly for society’s most vulnerable, including low-income people, the uninsured, minority Americans, young children, and elderly adults.

Approximately 8.5 to nine percent of American families living closest to the poverty line could not afford basic necessities and typical medical bills proposed by the health reform law.  The ACA requires individuals to purchase insurance by 2014, although with occasional exceptions.  The ACA restricts household out-of-pocket costs and subsidizes plans available through insurance exchanges to people with low-incomes.  Fewer households in high cost-of-living states could afford healthcare expenses, according to the Commonwealth Fund study.  The report included projections of spending on necessities, premiums and out-of-pocket costs for households between the federal poverty line and 500 percent of the threshold.  Those insured by safety net or state run insurance exchanges were not factored into the study.

Even with implementation of the ACA, some families across all income levels would continue to struggle to afford coverage because of steep out-of-pocket costs.  According to the report, 17 percent of families of four earning up to $44,700; approximately 25 percent of families earning between $44,700 and $67,050, would struggle with healthcare costs.  The data examines costs in 2014, the first year the ACA will be fully implemented and the start of state-based health insurance exchanges.  The law provides federal subsidies for the lowest-income people to buy insurance.  Americans with incomes between 133 and 399 percent of the poverty level are eligible for income-based tax credits.  Some low-income people will be eligible for subsidies to make up for out-of-pocket costs.  Americans who make less than 133 percent of the poverty level are eligible for Medicaid.

“The Affordable Care Act is very good news for millions of Americans who are struggling to afford health care, going without health insurance, or skipping the care they need because they can’t afford it,” said Commonwealth Fund President Karen Davis. “The new law makes health insurance and health care affordable for nearly all families, and introduces delivery system reforms that have the potential to greatly improve quality and efficiency.  If implemented well, new entities like accountable care organizations may bring even greater savings and affordability than this report predicts.”

Although the Commonwealth report is positive about the likelihood that more families will be able to afford health insurance, Craig Pollack, M.D., M.H.S., assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, and Katrina Armstrong, M.D., from the University of Pennsylvania, are not as upbeat about the ACA.  The physicians warn that as a result of certain provisions in the ACA, wealthy hospitals and physician practices might “cherry-pick” similar institutions and create Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs).  In this way, they can avoid poor and minority-heavy patient populations who will be treated elsewhere to cut costs.  ACOs encourage patients to seek care within their own network, which highlights the disparities between networks.

According to Pollack, hospitals and physician practices that treat too many minorities may be unable to join ACOs and will fall further behind in the cost and quality of care that is likely to occur in such networks.  “There is ample evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare,” Pollack said.  “Hospitals and private practices that care for greater numbers of minorities tend to have larger populations of Medicaid and uninsured patients.  These patients have less access to specialists, and their hospitals and practices tend to have fewer institutional resources than their counterparts.”

Nine Million Americans Lost Healthcare Coverage During the Recession

Monday, April 4th, 2011

The financial crisis not only robbed nine million Americans of their jobs – but also their healthcare insurance. According to a new study by The Commonwealth Fund, only 25 percent of Americans who lost employer-sponsored healthcare coverage succeeded at finding another source.  As a result, an estimated 52 million Americans did not have healthcare coverage in 2010.  Even though the federal government provides a subsidy, just 14 percent of people who lost their jobs continued their coverage through COBRA.

According to The Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey of 2010, “Using data from The Commonwealth Biennial Health Insurance Survey of 2010 and prior years, this report examines the effect of the recession on the health insurance coverage of adults between the ages of 19 and 64 and the implications for both their finances and their access to healthcare.  The survey of 3,033 adults, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from July 2010 to November 2010, finds that in the last two years a majority of men and women who lost a job that had health benefits became uninsured.  Adults who sought coverage on the individual insurance market over the past three years struggled to find plans they could afford and many were charged higher premiums, had a health condition excluded from their coverage, or were denied coverage altogether because of a pre-existing condition.  Meanwhile, Americans with health insurance had higher deductibles and consequently greater exposure to medical costs.  And millions were struggling to pay medical bills, facing cost-related barriers to getting the care they need, or skipping or delaying needed care, including prescription medications, because of the cost.”

Just 50 percent of adults aged 64 or less are current with preventive care.  Fully 49 million employed Americans spent 10 percent or more of their yearly income on out-of-pocket costs and insurance premiums, a sharp increase from the 31 million reported in 2001.  Once the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) goes into full effect in 2014, the situation is likely to improve dramatically.  “These reforms have enormous potential to begin solving the problems identified in this report,” said Sara Collins, vice president of The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that promotes a high performing healthcare system that achieves better access, improved quality, and greater efficiency, particularly for society’s most vulnerable, including low-income people, the uninsured, minority Americans, children, and the elderly.

“The report tells the story of the continuing deterioration of healthcare accessibility, efficiency, safety and affordability over the past decade,” said The Commonwealth Fund president Karen Davis. “All this despite the fact that the United States spends more than any other country on healthcare.  Most recently it has failed the millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the recession and lost health benefits as well, leaving them with no place to turn for affordable healthcare coverage.  The silver lining is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has already begun to bring relief to families,” Davis said.  “Once the new law is fully implemented, we can be confident that no future recession will have the power to strip so many Americans of their health security.”

Of those people who attempted to buy an individual plan during the study’s timeframe — 19 million individuals – or 71 percent found it difficult or impossible to locate a plan they could afford and met their needs, were denied coverage or charged extra because of a pre-existing medical condition.  Adults with family incomes of less than $22,050 for a family of four were hardest hit with 54 percent having no healthcare insurance.  An additional 41 percent of families with incomes of between $22,050 and $44,100 had no coverage.  Of higher-income families, just 13 percent lacked healthcare coverage in 2010.

Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation are critical of the healthcare reform law.  The Washington, D.C.-based think tank wants changes made to the healthcare system to make it less reliant on government and to have individuals “own and control their own healthcare policies.”  Additionally, Heritage believes that the healthcare law will increase government spending.  “Of course there’s some people who will benefit from the law, but just focusing on individuals with benefits is misleading,” said Brian Blase, a policy analyst in health studies.  “You have to look at the law in its totality.”

Healthcare Reform May Not End Medical Bankruptcies

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Is healthcare reform a cure-all for the issue of medical bankruptcy?  Depends.  Bankruptcies occur when a person has a serious illness and cannot keep up with paying the bills.  Since RomneyCare became law n Massachusetts, the number of medical-related bankruptcies fell from 59.3 percent to 52.9 percent between 2007 and 2009, according to a recent study.

“Health costs in the state have risen sharply since reform was enacted.  Even before the changes in health care laws, most medical bankruptcies in Massachusetts — as in other states — afflicted middle-class families with health insurance.  High premium costs and gaps in coverage — co-payments, deductibles and uncovered services — often left insured families liable for substantial out-of-pocket costs.  None of that changed.  For example, under Massachusetts’ reform, the least expensive individual coverage available to a 56-year-old Bostonian carries a premium of $5,616, a deductible of $2,000, and covers only 80 percent of the next $15,000 in costs for covered services,” according to the researchers.  According to the authors, an insured couple earning more than $44,000 a year – a level that is higher than the eligibility requirement for subsidies – might pay as much as $20,512 a year for medical services.  “Massachusetts’ health reform, like the national law modeled after it, takes many of the uninsured and makes them underinsured, typically giving them a skimpy, defective private policy that’s like an umbrella that melts in the rain: the protection’s not there when you need it,” lead author Dr. David Himmelstein said in a Physicians for National Health Reform news release.  The organization’s goal is a national single-payer healthcare system.

The study’s results, which were published in the American Journal of Medicine, suggest “that reducing medical bankruptcy rates in the United States will require substantially improved – not just expanded – insurance.” http://www.latimes.com/health/boostershots/la-heb-obamacare-insurance-costs-03082011,0,7832154.story To determine if RomneyCare had cut the number of bankruptcies, the research team examined a random sample of Massachusetts bankruptcy filings from July of 2009.  After sending surveys to 500 households, they compared the results to national and Massachusetts data assembled during 2007.  The Massachusetts healthcare law went into effect in 2008. According to Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, one of the study’s authors, health insurance in Massachusetts has risen since RomneyCare was implemented.  “It’s really too much money for the average family – especially if the breadwinner is the one who gets sick,” she said.  “We need to reduce limits on deductibles and out-of-pocket costs.”

“People think they have reasonable insurance until they try and use it,” said Dr. David Himmelstein, another study author.  “You are carrying an umbrella and it starts to rain and you put it up and it’s full of holes.  For most people, it just hasn’t rained yet.”  High premiums, large co-payments and deductibles mean that even families with insurance have to pay substantial out-of-pocket costs, said Himmelstein, a professor of public health at City University of New York.  Himmelstein said his survey’s findings suggest that the national health overhaul — which was modeled on the Massachusetts law and takes full effect in 2014 – is unlikely to ease the number of medical bankruptcies, either.

Sally Pipes, a conservative healthcare expert, is a long-time critic of the Massachusetts healthcare law.  “In fact, a substantial portion of Massachusetts’ newly insured still can’t afford to purchase even basic medical services, and are effectively no better off than before the law’s passage. Meanwhile, government health spending is spiraling out of control, adding to the state’s already massive public debt.  Nearly 30 percent of Massachusetts residents report that their medical costs have increased since MassCare’s implementation.”