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Tag: Pre-existing conditions

If Your Premiums Go Down but Coverage Gets Worse, Does Your Healthcare Matter?

Picture this. Amy becomes pregnant while working as a high school teacher. Her employer’s health insurance plan pays the maternity bills and she happily raises her twins.

Fast-forward a few years. She’s decided to become an entrepreneur and runs a small business. She becomes pregnant again but, this time, finds that her $400 a month individual health insurance policy won’t cover the expenses. In fine print, she discovers that she needed to purchase a special rider to activate maternity care benefits. She’ll have to pay $10,000+ out of pocket now, putting her burgeoning business at risk.

Angry at this, Amy decides to switch insurers but, to her dismay, she finds that the four largest insurers in her area don’t cover most expenses associated with a normal delivery. Amy has nowhere to go. Also, since pregnancy is a pre-existing condition, Amy is advised by her doctor to “not become pregnant again” if she wants to get quote reasonable health insurance rates during her search.

This is not an exaggerated or dystopian situation, it’s a real example from 2010.

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Wait. So How Do I Find out if a Specialist Is Covered by My Plan?

A THCB reader in Connecticut writes:

“I’m a pretty level headed person. I’ve been following the Healthcare.gov story in the news and figured it was more of the usual partisan stupidity out of Washington. I decided to do my homework before getting too worked up.

I went on to my state exchange and compared the available plans. Gold. Silver. Bronze. All very logical. I spent some time comparing options and found a plan I liked. So far so straightforward. No complaints. No plan shortage in my state.

The problems started when I picked up the phone and attempted to communicate with a living breathing human being. I figured it would be a good idea to confirm that my OBGYN’s practice is covered. To make a long story short, I have a pretty serious pre-existing condition that could hypothetically kill me. My OBGYN is one of the best in the state. Moving to another practice is NOT AN OPTION.

Knowing how the system works, I called my OBGYN’s office and asked them to confirm that my doctor’s plan was covered. Should be a five minute call. No luck. Sorry. They don’t have the information yet. Probably yes. They helpfully suggest I give the health plan a call. Well, that’s logical, I think to myself.  It takes time for new plans to  about the plans to make it through the system. So I take their advice.

I call the health plan involved and politely tell them why I’m calling and what I need to know.  Guess what? They don’t know either.

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My Family’s Obamacare

How will the Affordable Care Act affect my family and me? The answer, like the law itself, is complicated. There will be as many stories about health reform as there are families. But I’m confident that most of these stories will be good.

I say this both as a health-policy wonk, with my own health policy consulting firm, and as a husband and father. My wife and I live in Sacramento, California, and we have a five-year-old son. My wife also happens to have a pre-existing health condition. It’s nothing life-threatening but it’s just serious enough that she has been turned down for regular health insurance coverage. Up to a third of Americans face a similar issue, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Finding affordable, high-quality health coverage for my family has been, even for me, an “expert” in the area of health insurance, very complicated and frustrating. So I work with a health insurance broker to understand my options.

Currently, we have “COBRA” coverage for my wife, a type of health insurance you can get for 18 months after you’ve left employer-sponsored health coverage and that is available regardless of health history. It is expensive, though, costing us $655 per month. Then, since I don’t have an employer to provide coverage, I buy a separate policy in the so-called “individual market” to cover my son and myself. That costs $482 per month.

So before we get to any out-of-pocket medical expenses, we’re shelling out $13,644 per year in health insurance premiums. That’s actually quite a bit less than the average premium cost of $18,430 for people with employer-sponsored insurance (as calculated in the Milliman Medical Index of 2013), but the difference is that people with employer-sponsored insurance don’t have to take out their checkbook and pay the entire bill, since their company covers part of it and takes the rest out of their pay.

Our coverage is good for what we pay, but not extraordinarily so. It’s a pair of similar PPO (Preferred Provider Organization) products through Blue Shield of California that have a fairly broad network of doctors and hospitals.

Will my life get less complicated and frustrating on January 1, 2014, the day that health reform coverage starts? I believe it will.

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Is the Fact that I Am a Woman Considered a Pre-Existing Condition?

The male body has long been considered the “standard” for health care coverage. Having a woman’s body is seen as an expensive anomaly, and women pay dearly for being different.

When they buy their own health insurance in the individual market, women must lay out an extra $1 billion a year, simply because they are women. Some argue that this is fair: after all, a woman could become pregnant, and labor and delivery are costly.

But the truth is that, even when maternity benefits are excluded, one-third of all health plans charge women at least 30 percent more, according to a report released just last month by the National Women’s Law Center.

In 36 states, “92 percent of best-selling plans charge 40-year-old women more than 40-year-old men,” the Center reports, and “only 3 percent of these plans cover maternity services … One plan in South Dakota charges a woman $1252.80 more a year than a 40-year-old man for the same coverage.”

Today, less than half of American women can obtain affordable insurance through a job, which explains why millions buy their own insurance in the individual market. In that market, just 14 states ban gender rating:  California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.

Pricing based on gender also plagues the small group market, where insurers frequently jack up premiums if a small or mid-size business employs too many women. This means that many of these employers just can not afford to offer insurance. Only 17 states address the problem.

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How the United States Supreme Court Saved My Life

Not to be overly dramatic, but for me the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act was a matter of life and death. Because the law was largely upheld, I will be able to continue receiving treatment for breast cancer.

I was one of the early beneficiaries of the law. When I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer late last year, I had no health insurance, which meant my options were extremely limited. No insurer would pick up someone in my circumstances. But luckily, the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan had already kicked in, and it made it possible for me to purchase insurance under a government program.

I was uninsured not because I’m a lazy, freeloading deadbeat but because my husband and I are self-employed. We had been purchasing health insurance on the individual market along with 6% of the rest of the population. But after exhausting all of our resources trying to keep up with premiums of $1,500 a month, we had no choice but to cancel it.

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What Romney Should Do On Health Care

Americans believe in second chances. Mitt Romney will get his if the Supreme Court rules to throw out part, or all, of the president’s federal health insurance law. Should Romney propose replacing it with a federal version of the Massachusetts health law or a federal mega-bill that mandates a one-size-fits-all free-market solution?

The question is now central to the election — the high court has made that certain — and eclipsed in importance only by the debate over jobs and the economy.

President Obama may cite Romney’s Massachusetts reform as an inspiration for his own efforts, but there are profound differences between the laws — the size and reach, financing, the underlying philosophy. Romney sought an open marketplace for individuals to purchase benefit plans ranging from catastrophic to generous. Romney’s successor, Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, has obscured those differences by taking a big-government approach to implementation, drastically limiting choices and mandating minimum coverage levels beyond private-market norms.

Even with weak implementation, the Massachusetts law has yielded some positive results, including broadening insurance coverage, especially for minorities, and decreasing premiums for individual purchasers of insurance.

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Awaiting the Court’s Decision on Healthcare

The Supreme Court has already decided the fate of the health reform law, and in a few short weeks the rest of us will know whether it is upheld, struck down entirely, or badly damaged. Of the possible decisions, four are the most likely and each would have significant ramifications.

1)  The Court could uphold the law. Prior to oral arguments, this was the conventional wisdom. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s stinging questions led many to change this view, but he has surprised Court watchers before.

If he springs another surprise and supports the individual mandate, the law’s implementation would continue unabated. States that have waited for the Court’s decision would start moving on exchanges and essential benefits.

HHS would issue more regulations: on subsidies, employer penalties, insurance requirements, and others. However, it is common knowledge that many of the more controversial rules are being slow walked until after November 6th so as to not complicate President Obama’s reelection chances.

Upholding the law would certainly raise the stakes of the November elections. Should Democrats hold the Senate and/or President Obama win reelection, it’s likely the law would be permanently ensconced. On the other hand, should Republicans control the House and Senate and Governor Romney win the presidency, they will try to repeal the law or gut it through budget reconciliation before major provisions take effect in 2014.

But based on the “train wreck” of oral arguments, it seems unlikely that the law will escape the Court unscathed. It is more likely that the law will be damaged.  The question is, to what extent?

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The Psychology of the ObamaCare Debate

“How can the government make us buy health insurance?  What gives them that right?”

Sitting on my left while our airplane raced above the clouds, Elizabeth was clearly upset about Obamacare.  She wondered why the bill had to be so long, and why Obama would endorse a plan that doubled her health insurance costs.  But nothing vexed her more than the individual mandate.

At least that’s what I though until I spoke with her at greater length, and she revealed a profound truth to me about people’s attitudes towards the mandate and towards Obamacare more generally: she showed me that deep down she liked the idea of the mandate, once she realized its important role in accomplishing goals people on all sides of the political spectrum care about deeply.

We were flying towards North Carolina the day before the Supreme Court held its oral arguments on Obama’s healthcare plan.  Elizabeth had heard a great deal about the mandate.  She read The Wall Street Journal regularly, in part because it was so relevant to her work in banking.  And she enjoyed watching Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, but not Hannity, who she thought was “too extreme”.  She was by no means a conservative extremist.  She had major concerns about the banking industry for example, and as a Christian felt strongly that income inequality is a moral problem that neither party was addressing in an effective manner.  But she was solidly Republican, no doubt about that, and she agreed with most people in that political party that Obamacare was hurting the economy.  And above all she believed the health insurance mandate was “un-American.”

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Health Problem Quantified

We now know how many people have the problem most often cited as the reason for last years’ health overhaul legislation. Answer: 8,000

No, that’s not a misprint. Out of 310 million Americans, only 8,000 people have the problem given as the principal reason for spending almost $1 trillion, creating more than 150 regulatory agencies and causing perhaps 150 million or more people to change the coverage they now have.

Alert readers will remember the White House summer of 2009 invitation to all Americans to send in their horror stories describing health insurance industry abuses. Although the complaints were many, the vast majority were about pre-existing condition limitations. Then, on the eve of the ObamaCare vote, every member of Congress who appeared on television to defend the legislation was able to cite by name an individual or family in his or her state or Congressional district with a heart wrenching story.

Gone was any interest in “universal coverage” or “insuring the uninsured” or “helping poor people get health care.” The case for change was focused almost exclusively on protecting the middle class from miserly insurance companies.

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An issue, guaranteed

I don’t mean this in a partisan way, but it is really distressing to read this New York Times article about Republican plans to dismantle parts of the recent health care bill by using the appropriation powers of the House of Representatives. I say this because of the unintended consequences that will result if they are successful in this approach. Let me give an example.

I think one of the most important aspects of the law is “guaranteed issue” of health insurance: Insurance companies will no longer be permitted to use pre-existing medical conditions as a bar to coverage. A concomitant of guaranteed issue is the individual mandate, the requirement that all people purchase health insurance. Why?

Left to their own, insurers will impose pre-exisiting conditions types of restrictions because they understand the moral hazard aspect of insurance. Healthy people provide an actuarial balance to sick people. If people only buy insurance when they need care, the risk profile of the insured population rapidly swings, upsetting the actuarial calculations used to establish premiums. So, if these restrictions are outlawed, everybody needs to be in the risk pool. Accordingly, you have to ban optional insurance.

But look at this quote from the article cited above:

Republican lawmakers said, for example, that they would propose limiting the money and personnel available to the Internal Revenue Service, so the agency could not aggressively enforce provisions that require people to obtain health insurance and employers to help pay for it.

I think the Republicans know that guaranteed issue is popular with Americans, and so they do not directly want to repeal that provision of the new law. But what will happen if healthy people start to opt out of getting insurance, only to return when they get sick? The system will quickly get out of balance. Ironically, this will only cause premiums to rise. I don’t understand why the Republicans would want that to happen, and I fail to see a strategic political advantage arising from that result.

This makes me wonder if they have thought this through completely and whether they understand the unintended consequences of their proposed actions.

Paul Levy is the President and CEO of Beth Israel Deconess Medical Center in Boston. Paul recently became the focus of much media attention when he decided to publish infection rates at his hospital, despite the fact that under Massachusetts law he is not yet required to do so. For the past three years he has blogged about his experiences in an online journal, Running a Hospital, one of the few blogs we know of maintained by a senior hospital executive.

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