Medical costs still burden many despite insurance - the boston globe
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Medical costs still burden many despite insurance Mass. survey finds people in debt, skimping on care By Kay Lazar, Globe Staff | October 23, 2008
Although far more Massachusetts residents have health insurance coverage than residents nationwide, asignificant portion of Bay Staters are still struggling to pay for needed healthcare, a new survey shows.
Some are postponing treatments, and others are not filling prescriptions, because of high costs or an inabilityto pay bills from earlier procedures, according to the survey by The Boston Globe and the Blue Cross BlueShield of Massachusetts Foundation.
A third of those surveyed said the cost of care is their biggest health concern, and 39 percent ranked it amongtheir top two health concerns. No other concern came close.
Thirteen percent of residents with insurance said they were unable to pay for some health services in the pastyear. The same percentage of insured people said they did not fill at least one prescription because it was tooexpensive or their insurance copayment was too high. The numbers rise to 14 percent if both insured anduninsured residents are considered.
Two years into the state's pioneering healthcare experiment to insure nearly everyone, coverage is almostuniversal, with 97 percent of Massachusetts adults reporting they have some sort of insurance, according tothe survey. Yet for some that did not translate into getting needed care.
"Basic things, like getting Flonase, [a sinus medicine] are a luxury," said Diane Schilder, a 44-year-oldArlington mom and adjunct college professor of education who has two children, a doctorate, health insurance,dental insurance, and about $800 of medical debt on her credit card.
Schilder is one of 506 adults surveyed in the telephone poll conducted Oct. 12 to 17 by the University of NewHampshire Survey Center. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. Schilder is divorced, butstill covered under her former husband's insurance, which carries a $500 family deductible for prescriptionsand then covers only 50 percent of the costs for many drugs, she said.
Such insurance coverage is not unusual. "Many of the policies out there have such huge copayments anddeductibles that people can't afford care," said Dr. David Himmelstein, associate professor of medicine atHarvard Medical School and a primary care doctor at Cambridge Health Alliance.
Himmelstein is cofounder of Physicians for a National Health Program, an organization that pushes fornational health insurance. He studied personal bankruptcies nationwide in 2001 and found that about half ofthem were linked to a medical issue, and in three-quarters of those cases, the debtor was insured.
While medical debt is burdening a sizable number of Massachusetts residents, the pain is greater nationally,where the percent of uninsured is about five times greater, according to the latest US Census.
A national poll released this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a California-based nonprofit thatresearches health policy, found that about a third of Americans surveyed reported that their family hadproblems paying medical bills in the past year and that almost one in five said they had medical bills of more
Healthcare leaders say the state's first-in-the-nation law, which requires nearly everyone to have healthinsurance or face a tax penalty, has mitigated some cost concerns for consumers.
"It may be that while you are seeing those problems in Massachusetts, they are not as high as what we areseeing nationally because in Massachusetts people do have access to healthcare," said Drew Altman, Kaiserpresident and chief executive officer.
Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, Massachusetts secretary of health and human services, said prescription costs can beprohibitive, especially for low-income residents who have chronic health problems and need severalmedications. She said the state is considering eliminating or greatly reducing the $1 copayments forthousands of residents on Medicaid who need medications to treat diabetes or high blood pressure orcholesterol.
"It would make it more affordable for people with chronic medical conditions to take multiple medications and . . . manage their conditions better," she said.
Still, she said, fewer residents overall are struggling with medical bills since Massachusetts overhauled itshealthcare laws two years ago. She cited a recent survey by the Urban Institute, which found that the share ofpeople with skimpy health insurance that left them with huge medical bills has dropped two percentage pointssince the state's new law started.
It also found that such inadequate insurance is a problem for three times the number of people nationally,compared with Massachusetts. Starting in January, the insurance coverage mandated by the state will have toinclude prescription drugs.
The Globe-Blue Cross survey found that income has a direct correlation to a household's ability to afford care. People with household incomes less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, roughly $31,200 for a singleperson, were more than twice as likely to report problems affording prescriptions or other care. People who aredivorced or who never went beyond high school were also more likely to report healthcare cost problems.
Among those reporting difficulty was Harvard University graduate student Justin Vincent, 26, a brainresearcher who was stuck with a $3,000 bill last year after breaking his leg because his health insurance didnot cover the physical therapists recommended by his doctor.
"After the leg surgery, I generally refuse medical care because they don't tell you what the prices are," he said. "It's not like Walmart, where they tell you what the prices are."
The Globe/Blue Cross survey found that 8 percent of people with insurance and 9 percent overall reportedavoiding or postponing medical treatment because they already owed money for health services. InBlackstone, Robert Ravenelle, 20, a private security guard who makes about $10 an hour, said he is stillpaying off a $1,400 emergency room bill from last year for a knee injury because he doesn't have healthinsurance. Ravenelle said he has received warnings from the state about facing a tax penalty for not havingcoverage, but has decided paying the penalty is less expensive than buying insurance.
"Unless they want me to live on the street," he said, "I can't do it."
The Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation recently launched a project studying how state residents get care. Kay Lazar can be reached at [email protected]
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