Healthcare On a Budget: A New Trend?

graphic of scissors cutting the word "budget"
Recession or incision?

By Dan Bowman
The trend of Americans cutting back on healthcare use during tough economic times is nothing new, considering that many lose their jobs and, in turn, their health insurance. However, according to statistics touted by financial gurus at companies like insurance giant WellPoint (NYSE: WLP), the drop-off this time around is particularly large, causing some experts to prognosticate that real cost changes could be more than just a pipe dream, reports the Wall Street Journal.
“We have a very weak economy and it’s just a different environment for the elective parts of healthcare,” health economist Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, told the Journal. “[T]his could go beyond the recession. Being a less aggressive consumer of healthcare is here to stay.”
For example, 18 million Americans opted to go the high-deductible plan route this year, Paul Mango, director of consulting firm McKinsey & Co., told the Journal. Last year, that number was 13 million.
Lab-testing company Quest Diagnostics Inc., also reported that due partially to a decline in the number of doctor visits by patients, its volume has continuously fallen throughout the year (2.6 percent in the first quarter and 1.3 percent in Q2). According to Thomson Reuters, the number of doctor visits has fallen in every month in 2010, with visits falling 7.6 percent from May of last year to May of this year.
Hospital visits, the article points out, also fell in three of the first four months so far this year.
“People just aren’t using healthcare like they have,” Wayne DeVeydt, WellPoint’s chief financial officer, told the Journal. “Utilization is lower than we expected, and it’s unusual.”

To learn more:
– read this Wall Street Journal article
– check out Quest Diagnostics’ Q2 earnings update
– here’s Thomson Reuters’ Consumer Healthcare Sentiment Index for May 2010 data

Related Articles:
Recession causing diabetics to cut back on care
Family members of critically ill patients at risk because of economy
Patients cutting back on elective surgeries, procedures
As healthcare costs rise, patients cut back

Less-publicized changes in the new health overhaul law that take effect soon

health reform graphic featuring a stethoscope on clipboard with map of U.S.
A Closer Look at Reform

By Sandra Yin

Lesser-known provisions of the new healthcare reform law could help build support in the run-up to the contentious mid-term elections, according to Kaiser Health News.

Here are some of the changes you might have missed: Certain preventive services such as breast cancer screenings every one to two years, cholesterol blood tests and some sexually transmitted disease screenings will be free, meaning insurers won’t be able to charge co-payments or deductibles for them. Insurers also will have to cover recommended immunizations in full. According to KHN, administration officials say any increase in premiums would be minimal, although healthcare analysts contend that premiums could rise as a result of the new coverage requirements.

Furthermore, a nonprofit research institute will be created to do comparative effectiveness research. Researchers will examine various medical treatments, by looking at data and conducting studies, to determine which methods lead to the best outcomes. The institute could be the source of much possible controversy, KHN notes. Although the law says the board’s findings can’t be seen as telling doctors how to practice medicine or what insurers will have to cover, it’s possible insurers and others may look to use such data as rationales for changes in coverage and treatment patterns. Also, a new program will help employers absorb the cost of healthcare for retirees ages 55 and older who are not eligible for Medicare. The reimbursements will cover 80 percent of medical claims between $15,000 and $90,000 for retirees, their spouses and dependents. In a move that could make waves in the payer world, if insurance premium hikes are deemed unreasonable–which federal regulators have yet to define–states could exclude insurers from offering their coverage on health insurance exchanges beginning in 2014.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners is developing recommendations on what information insurers should provide to state and federal officials to justify premium increases. Federal regulations haven’t been issued yet on this, KHN reports, although the provision has gone into effect. By 2014, Medicaid will expand to include everyone who makes less than 133 percent of the poverty line ($14,400 for individuals). Most poor childless adults are not covered by the program. In the interim, states may get federal aid to expand their Medicaid programs to cover those people. Ann Kohler, director of health services for the American Public Human Services Association and head of the National Association of State Medicaid

Directors, told KHN that many states are worried they don’t have the money or staff to expand now. Computer systems used by states and the federal government often aren’t aligned Kohler said, and there may not be enough doctors to care for all the newly covered individuals. To learn more: – read the Kaiser Health News report

CDPH WARNS OF DANGEROUS DIP: DON’T EAT RAQUEL’S BRAND PRODUCTS

Date: 7/23/2010

Raquel's Package
Don't Even Single Dip!

Dr. Mark Horton, director of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), today warned consumers – especially pregnant women and the parents of infants and young children – not to eat Raquel’s brand hummus salads, wraps, sandwiches and other food items. They may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous bacteria that can cause serious health problems. No illnesses have been reported in connection with this problem.

Quong Hop & Co. initiated the voluntary recall of “Raquel’s” brand products after sampling conducted by CDPH detected Listeria monocytogenes in a processing plant. In addition to the bacteria concerns, an allergen, soy lecithin, is used in the production of hummus but it is not mentioned on the label.
Raquel’s products are packaged in a variety of sizes. The hummus has a product date of Sept. 23, 2010 and prior. Salads, wraps, sandwiches and other food items have product dates of Aug. 3, 2010 and prior. Raquel’s is distributed to supermarkets and natural food stores in several western states, including California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

A complete list of recalled products can be found here. Additional product photos can be found here.

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterial organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in newborns, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems. Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women. Others may suffer short-term symptoms that can include fever, headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Consumers with any of these symptoms should call their physician.

Consumers who purchased these products should immediately discard them or return them to the store where they were purchased. Anyone who handles these products should wash their hands thoroughly afterwards. Consumers with questions can call Quong Hop at (650) 553-9900 extension 13.

Heads Will Roll – California Lettuce Recall

CDPH WARNS: NEARLY ONE-HALF MILLON PACKAGES OF FRESH EXPRESS BRAND ROMAINE LETTUCE RECALLED IN STATE

7/15/2010      SACRAMENTO

Contact: Al Lundeen, Michael Sicilia (916) 440-7259

picture of Fresh Express lettuce package
The Broken Hearts of Romaine

California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Director Dr. Mark Horton today warned consumers not to eat certain romaine lettuce products packaged by Fresh Express because they may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, which can cause serious illness. The E. coli O157:H7 was isolated from routine surveillance samples. So far, no illnesses have been linked to any of the 23 affected products.

In California, 40,684 cases of the recalled products were distributed.  CDPH estimates that this translates to approximately 480,000 packages in California. The salad products were distributed to retailers in 19 states, including California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
The romaine salad products are sold under the Fresh Express label and packaged in sizes ranging from 7 ounces to 32 ounces. The affected product labels are marked:
“Use by Dates of July 8 – July 12,” and have an “S” in the product code.

A complete list of the recalled products may be obtained here. Additional photographs of the affected packages can be found here.
CDPH advises consumers who purchased affected romaine salad products to throw them away immediately, then thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water.

E. coli O157:H7 infection often causes abdominal cramps and diarrhea. People with severe infections may suffer kidney damage and require hospitalization. Complications can also be fatal.

Those most at risk for serious complications include young children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Consumers with any of these symptoms should contact their health care provider.

Head and spine trauma from ATV accidents cost $3.24 billion annually, study finds

ATV in midair with back wheels flying off
ATV OMG!

Head and spine trauma from ATV accidents cost $3.24 billion annually, study finds.

Better-informed patients might spend less on healthcare

Chart of insurance coverage by type
Can informed consumers help control costs?

By Sandra Yin

More transparency between doctors and patients could be “at least somewhat effective in bending the cost curve downward.” That’s cautious actuary-speak from the Society of Actuaries. Simply put, if consumers knew the prices beforehand and had a range of options to choose from, they could begin to cut national healthcare spending by making better decisions, according to findings from surveys the society conducted. Many surveyed agreed that more transparency and less ambiguity surrounding the price of healthcare would help. Eighty-six percent of healthcare actuaries surveyed recommend making prices for treatments available and more visible to patients.
In other findings, the society’s survey of 600 actuaries found:

* 90 percent think that reducing the number and severity of medical errors will help reduce costs.

* 88 percent believe that fighting fraud and abuse within the system can be at least somewhat effective at lowering costs.

* 8 percent recommend making quality of provider care more available to patients. Among consumers surveyed, 37 percent feel they could better control their own healthcare costs if healthcare providers–or their insurance company–told them about the costs of medical services and outcome quality.

Thirty percent believe they could better control their healthcare costs if, before beginning a medical procedure, the physician told them about the cost of the procedure, the number of times he had performed the procedure, and results. However, not everyone is so optimistic about their ability to control healthcare expenses. Nearly four in 10 consumers doubt they can do much to rein in individual healthcare spending.

To learn more: – read this Healthcare Finance News article – check out the Society of Actuaries press release