Newly Insured, Many Now Face Learning Curve
By Abby Goodnough
The New York Times, August 2, 2014
Advocates of the Affordable Care Act, focused until now on persuading people to buy health insurance, have moved to a crucial new phase: making sure the eight million Americans who did so understand their often complicated policies and use them properly.
The political stakes are high, as support for the health care law will hinge at least partly on whether people have good experiences with their new coverage.
Many people who signed up for private coverage through the new marketplaces had never had health insurance, and even the basics — like what a premium is and why getting a primary care doctor is better than relying on the emergency room — are beyond their experience. Others have a sense of how insurance works but find the details of the marketplace plans confusing, especially if they signed up without the help of someone who understood them.
Insurers, too, are trying to help ease their new members’ confusion. Independence Blue Cross, which enrolled 165,000 people in its marketplace plans, has representatives traveling the Philadelphia region this summer in a tractor-trailer, the Independence Express, and offering educational seminars. Independence also has tried to reach all of the new members by phone to welcome them and “make sure they understand what they bought,” said Paula Sunshine, the company’s vice president of consumer sales and marketing.
The company knew going in that the learning curve would be steep. It held focus groups last year with nearly 2,000 people and found, for example, that virtually none knew what coinsurance was.
In one sign of widespread confusion, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey of programs that helped people apply for marketplace coverage found that 90 percent had already been re-contacted by consumers with post-enrollment questions.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
If health care reform had worked the way it should have, today anyone could get the health care that he or she needed without having to worry about how to pay for it. What are we seeing instead? Just trying to enroll in health care coverage has been a very difficult process for many, and tens of millions will still remain uninsured. And today’s article shows how problematic the next step is – trying to put your coverage to use.
Some of the problems have already been widely publicized. Newer plans, especially those in the exchanges, have low actuarial values (i.e., very high deductibles and other excessive cost sharing). Cost sharing can make care unaffordable for those with modest incomes. Plans are now using narrow- and ultra-narrow networks of hospitals and health care professionals which limit patients’ choices in their health care, often preventing access to the most appropriate physicians and hospitals. We are now seeing tiered levels of specialized services and pharmaceuticals in which patients are financially penalized if they use specialists or drugs in the higher, more expensive tiers even if they are clearly preferred for medical reasons. The penalty is assessed by the insurers strictly to dissuade patients from using more expensive care even though it may be better care. Patients are also having difficulties determining not only whether specific providers are in or out of their networks, but also which tier they are in and what that means. Furthermore, the provider enrollment in these networks is quite unstable, not to mention the instability that arises when the patient must change plans and therefore change networks. This says nothing about the problems patients face when they try to get an appointment and find that there are no openings, or find that the distances are too far – directly due to the insurance innovation that promises a higher volume of patients to fewer physicians so that insurers can get greater discounts, even though overloading their practices. The list goes on and on with administrative excesses that are designed to enhance the business performance of the insurance products at a cost to the patients that they should be serving.
It should not have been this way. A single payer national health program would have automatically enrolled everyone; it would have included all providers, and it would have been financed through equitable taxes, making it affordable for everyone.
Although this New York Times article presents the problem as a need to teach individuals the complexities of using these newer insurance products, the problem is actually the complexities themselves and the tremendous injustices that ensue.
The remainder of this comment is composed of more excerpts from the NYT article. The experience of Salwa Shabazz should enrage us and drive us to demand health care justice for all. Her case shows us the compelling need for comprehensive structural reform of our health care financing system.
The following are excerpts from the NYT article (link above):
Last week, Salwa Shabazz arrived at the office of a public health network here with a bag full of paperwork about her new health insurance — and an unhappy look on her face. She had chosen her plan by phone in March, speaking to a customer service representative at the federal insurance marketplace. Now she had problems and questions, so many questions.
“I’ve had one doctor appointment since I got this insurance, and I had to pay $60,” Ms. Shabazz told Daniel Flynn, a counselor with the health network, the Health Federation of Philadelphia. “I don’t have $60.”
Mr. Flynn spent almost two hours going over her Independence Blue Cross plan, which he explained had a “very complicated” network that grouped doctors and hospitals into three tiers. Ms. Shabazz, who has epilepsy, had not understood when she chose the plan that her doctors were in the most expensive tier.
“None of that was explained when I signed up,” she said. “This is the first I’m hearing it.”
Independence Blue Cross has focused on making sure people understand the tiered-network plan that Ms. Shabazz chose, which was popular because of its relatively low price but also particularly hard to understand. Ms. Shabazz, 38, paid only about $32 a month in premiums, with federal subsidies of $218 covering the rest. But she could not afford the $60 co-payments to see her specialists on her annual income of $19,000.
Her financial situation worsened when she had to quit her job at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in June because of the epilepsy, she said. She had called the federal marketplace to report her change in income, and had received a letter that she handed to Mr. Flynn, hoping he could explain it. The news, he said, was not good: With no more paychecks, she had fallen into the so-called coverage gap, earning too little to keep qualifying for the subsidies that made her premiums affordable, but likely still not qualifying for Medicaid because Pennsylvania has not expanded that program, as 26 states have under the Affordable Care Act.
“You’ll probably have to cancel your plan,” he said.
Ms. Shabazz’s mother, Waheedah Shabazz-El, who had accompanied her to the appointment, shook her head as her daughter wiped away tears. “There are so many layers to this,” Ms. Shabazz-El said.
Closing comment by Don McCanne: We are not powerless. Let’s demand single payer, and not let up until we get it.