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Thinking About Health: Insured victims of medical errors can get big bills

Last winter Tammy Fogall, a reader in Colorado, told me about her family’s “troubled summer vacation,” as she called it. A visit to relatives in Ohio had turned into a medical nightmare that left the family struggling with a $12,000 bill plus a ringside seat to observe what happens when doctors and hospitals make mistakes.

Thinking About Health: Consumers are fed up with skyrocketing drug costs

72 percent of Americans think drug costs are unreasonable

Late this summer the Food and Drug Administration approved two new drugs for lowering cholesterol. Repatha and Praluent are aimed at patients with very high cholesterol levels who haven’t been helped by commonly used statins or other therapies. The new drugs’ debut was marked by the usual hype touting the wonders of the latest pharmaceuticals.

Thinking About Health: Supreme Court ruling is factor in health insurance decisions

At the end of its 2014-15 term the Supreme Court decided that the key component of the Affordable Care Act — the tax subsidies available to help people buy health insurance —would continue in all states. Justices addressed a challenge that the subsidies were legal only in the 17 states that ran their own shopping exchanges and not in the rest that chose to use the marketplaces operated by the federal government.

Thinking About Health: If you knew the calories in that sandwich, would you still eat it?

Not long ago my husband showed up with a sandwich for lunch that he bought at a local supermarket. I thought it was going to be our usual: turkey and provolone with lettuce on a hard roll, always plenty for both of us. At $6.50, how could you go wrong?

Thinking About Health: Patients grade their local hospitals

The government has just announced its first-ever star ratings of the country’s hospitals based on patients’ assessments of the care they received.

Thinking About Health: Think twice before buying drugs that aren’t effective

Word has just come from Express Scripts, the big pharmacy benefit manager, that per capita drug spending in the U.S. increased more than 6 percent last year. When high prices for specialty drugs like the hepatitis C medicine Sovaldi is factored in, the increase is even greater. There are more expensive specialty drugs in the pipeline, and prices of traditional drugs especially generics are rising too. We know that if we’ve refilled any prescriptions.

Thinking About Health: Long-term care insurance may provide little assurance

The U.S. has no national policy to pay for long-term care — no payment system for nursing home, home care or dozens of other services many people need as they age. And almost as bad, there has been little public discussion about this looming crisis in American healthcare. You’d think it might surface as an election issue in the coming presidential campaign, but it hasn’t so far.

Thinking About Health: Hospital mistakes still kill too many

Few people go to the hospital expecting their hospital stay to kill them. But sometimes it does. No one is sure of the precise number of people who die because of mistakes made in hospitals, but it’s not small. Every patient is potentially at risk.

Thinking About Health: Health insurance brings new tax headaches

Choosing an insurance policy either from your state’s shopping exchanges or from an agent selling on the open market is nothing less than daunting, a tough, unwelcome chore most of us could do without. The task for shoppers is about to get even more complicated as tax time approaches. Since most people must carry insurance or face penalties, and more than 80 percent of those buying from a state exchange received tax subsidies, taxes have quickly become linked to medical insurance.

Thinking About Health: Medicare will pay for obesity counseling, really?

It’s amazing how much we talk about making people healthier. Consider all the discussion in America about overweight people who are stigmatized for making poor food choices. Think about the warnings that obesity is a leading cause of preventable death. So, it’s puzzling that Medicare offers an obesity counseling benefit that must be one of the best kept secrets outside of Washington.

Thinking About Health: Cheap insurance premiums may lead to high health care costs

You may tell yourself, “I’m healthy and will have few expenses so why not pick the cheapest plan with a high deductible?” only to learn a few months later you need chemotherapy to treat a melanoma.

Thinking About Health: PBMs horn in on doctors’ decisions about medicines

A few weeks ago Jean, a 64-year-old retiree from Littleton, sent along an e-mail in response to a column I had written. I had told of my friend’s ordeal trying to refill a particular cholesterol-lowering drug that a pharmacy benefit manager, known as a PBM, wanted him to exchange for a new drug. That new medication would have resulted in an out-of-pocket cost increase of more than 1,000 percent.

Thinking About Health: Beware of sales pitches during Medicare’s open enrollment

Once again it’s Medicare open enrollment season, the time for those on Medicare to choose how to cover the gaps in the government health program for seniors and people with disabilities. Once again beneficiaries in many parts of the country face a bewildering number of choices — far more than most of them can reasonably evaluate. It’s no wonder studies show that beneficiaries stick with the same plan year after year even though they may be able to get something cheaper.

Thinking About Health: When Congress says it’s OK to waste health care dollars

Evidence continues to pile up that Medicare Advantage plans are no advantage for taxpayers. MA plans, as they are called, are one alternative for seniors to receive their Medicare benefits. But in this case, the benefits come from government payments to private insurance carriers, not directly from the federal government.

Thinking About Health: What happens when we get too much health care?

Several years ago the prestigious Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed something startling about U.S. health care. Many Americans get too much at the same time others get too little.

Thinking About Health: Who wins race for patients — the ER or urgent care?

Tracy Hume, a freelance writer who lives in Greeley, and a reader of Thinking About Health columns, recently sent along this provocative question. “Do ER-affiliated urgent care providers ever try to escalate patients to the ER when it is not medically necessary?” she asked. “Why? How should a consumer respond?”

Thinking About Health: Quiz — Will next year's insurance rates go up or down?

It’s now the silly season for insurance rates with government agencies, consulting groups and the media all speculating about next year’s premiums. Will your insurance premiums go up or down this fall? Never before have I seen such intense interest in insurance rates, which editors have usually considered a snoozer of a story.

Thinking About Health: Pushing back against high-priced medicines

Many Americans have begun to realize they’re paying too much for prescription drugs.

Thinking About Health: Taking unnecessary antibiotics can be harmful

How many times have you walked away from the doctor’s office with a prescription for an antibiotic to treat a cold? Probably many. Over the decades we’ve been conditioned to believe that antibiotics are sort of an insurance policy against some malady that might be worse than a cold or that they will make the nasty symptoms magically disappear.

Thinking About Health: Who comes between you and your doctor?

How many times have you heard politicians say that no bureaucrat should come between you and your doctor? You and your physician should decide when you need to go to the hospital or when you might want to wait out that cold before taking an antibiotic. At least that’s been the American ideal of the doctor-patient relationship. The reality is something very different.

Thinking About Health: How many calories are in that Big Mac?

When you next eat at McDonald’s, here’s an exercise in consumer choice: Would you choose a Bacon Club House burger with 750 calories, a Big Mac with 550 calories, or the premium McWrap with bacon and grilled chicken giving you 460?

Thinking About Health: What does your insurance pay for?

If you’ve signed up for Obamacare or have begun using the coverage you already had, you’ve moved from the buyer’s stage to the owner’s stage. Like owning a car, you have to read the fine print in the owner’s manual to know what to do when things go wrong. In particular, you need to know who pays what for your care.

Thinking About Health: Facing realities of high deductible insurance

Pat Mallett, a self-employed businessman in Littleton, had heard a lot about Obamacare and thought a policy available in the new state shopping exchange would offer him a better deal than the coverage he had. The policy that covered him, his wife and two teenage kids cost about $400 per month and came with a $5,000 deductible, which meant they paid cash for routine office visits and annual physicals — up to a total of $5,000 per year.

Thinking About Health: Tax penalties await those who don’t sign up for insurance under the ACA

The day of reckoning is coming for the Affordable Care Act, widely called Obamacare. March 31, the day nearly every American is supposed to have health insurance, is fast approaching. And judging from the government’s February enrollment numbers, many uninsured people still have not signed up.

Thinking About Health: Obamacare questions remain valid

The Obama administration official at the New York City panel missed a chance to explain an important aspect of the law that gets to the “what’s in it for us” question.

Thinking About Health: High health care costs pinch seniors’ budgets

The median annual household income for seniors is $34,000, and it’s just under $30,000 for people living on Social Security disability benefits. Looking at the stats another way, half of all people with Medicare live on annual incomes of $23,500 or less; one-quarter have incomes below $14,400. Both reports found that even with Medicare, high health care costs are eating up a substantial portion of those incomes as Medicare beneficiaries know all too well.


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