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How to make your health insurance count as if your life depended on it

Posted Oct 18 2009 10:06pm
Five years ago, I penned an opinion piece which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle titled, " How to make your health insurance count as if your life depended on it".

The most disturbing and troubling aspect of the piece is that if it was published today it would still be completely accurate. Healthcare quality still varies dramatically over the past decade despite the Institute of Medicine's 1999 landmark report "To Err is Human".

Even as many expect President Obama to have healthcare insurance reform bill requiring universal coverage signed by the end of this year, the reality is that it will still be a full decade before meaningful improvements in the healthcare system will be seen. That's optimistic to say the least.

What should you do? Make sure you make the right choices today so you will be around for years to come because it isn't clear even five years later after my opinion piece that the healthcare system is in any hurry to fix itself soon.

Who pays for this inertia? You do. But with some education (and even the critical insider tips from my book ), you can get the best healthcare American medicine has to offer without overspending).

The op-ed piece follows.

How to make your health insurance count as if your life depended on it

It's that time again, and every year I dread this activity almost as much as April 15, or trying to find my wife the "perfect" Christmas gift. Typically, autumn is open-enrollment time for choosing a health-insurance plan. Though we gripe about increasing out-of-pocket costs, for most of us, health insurance is a hassle, a formality and not worthy of much attention. But we could be dead wrong. Unlike other products and services we purchase, health insurance makes it difficult for consumers to adequately determine whether it is worth their hard-earned dollars. As a result, many of us chose the plans based on cost or whether our doctors participate in the plan. This ignorance could cost you your life.

The National Committee of Quality Assurance estimates that this year, 79, 000 Americans (nearly twice the number who died of breast-cancer) died prematurely -- not because of hospital errors, misdiagnoses or negligence, but because they chose the wrong insurance plan. Had they selected a high- quality program, the simple things like controlling high blood pressure, lowering cholesterol and managing diabetes to levels recommended by the American Heart Association or the American Diabetes Association would have been reached and their lives prolonged.

When NCQA compared the performance of the top 10 percent of health plans with the national average on certain measures like breast-cancer screening, advising patients to quit smoking, immunization rates for flu shots, it discovered variability among plans exceeding 20 percent. If one used similar criteria to compare the safety performance of the top 10 percent of airline carriers with the national average, the quality gap was far less than 1 percent. The same applied for banking and manufacturing. How safe would you feel about flying if among the various airlines there was a quality variance of more than 20 percent? Yet, when it comes to health care, consumers don't appear to be concerned.

An additional frightening fact is that only 25 percent of all insured Americans have health plans that voluntarily provided their performance data for review by the NCQA . This means you have an increased chance of not knowing whether you're choosing a poor-quality health plan this year.
As if that weren't enough, during this enrollment period, the term "consumer-driven health plans" is the new catchphrase for cost containment. In an effort to save money, employers are less likely to provide comprehensive coverage, but rather directly give you the dollars to manage and spend on health care. Now you, not the health-insurance plan, will decide what tests, treatments and procedures you can afford. For your nagging sciatica, should you pay for an MRI of the spine or a CT scan to rule out a herniated lumbar disc? For your sake, with the burden of financial responsibility and the lack of consistency among health plans, you'd better hope you never ever get ill.

So what can you do? Although there is no national urgency to fix the problem, you aren't completely powerless. First, check out the NCQA Web site ( http://www.ncqa.org/ ) and see if your health-plan options are accredited and approved by NCQA for providing high-quality health care. If not, consider talking to your human resources department and getting NCQA accredited programs on your roster next year. It's your money. Don't you deserve the best value and quality?

Next, take charge of your health now, get the overdue preventive screening tests done, and work with your doctor on getting the right treatment, not necessarily the newest.

Finally, do the boring but simple stuff: Get control of your blood pressure, lose weight, lower your cholesterol and stay active. These interventions really do save lives. How do I know? I am employed by one of the health plans highly rated by NCQA. My hope is that with hard work and some luck, you might just be around long enough to see an American health-care system that is known not as the most expensive, but the best at promoting a healthy and productive quality of life for us all.
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