Healthcare Reform May Not End Medical Bankruptcies

Is healthcare reform a cure-all for the issue of medical bankruptcy?  Depends.  Bankruptcies occur when a person has a serious illness and cannot keep up with paying the bills.  Since RomneyCare became law n Massachusetts, the number of medical-related bankruptcies fell from 59.3 percent to 52.9 percent between 2007 and 2009, according to a recent study.

“Health costs in the state have risen sharply since reform was enacted.  Even before the changes in health care laws, most medical bankruptcies in Massachusetts — as in other states — afflicted middle-class families with health insurance.  High premium costs and gaps in coverage — co-payments, deductibles and uncovered services — often left insured families liable for substantial out-of-pocket costs.  None of that changed.  For example, under Massachusetts’ reform, the least expensive individual coverage available to a 56-year-old Bostonian carries a premium of $5,616, a deductible of $2,000, and covers only 80 percent of the next $15,000 in costs for covered services,” according to the researchers.  According to the authors, an insured couple earning more than $44,000 a year – a level that is higher than the eligibility requirement for subsidies – might pay as much as $20,512 a year for medical services.  “Massachusetts’ health reform, like the national law modeled after it, takes many of the uninsured and makes them underinsured, typically giving them a skimpy, defective private policy that’s like an umbrella that melts in the rain: the protection’s not there when you need it,” lead author Dr. David Himmelstein said in a Physicians for National Health Reform news release.  The organization’s goal is a national single-payer healthcare system.

The study’s results, which were published in the American Journal of Medicine, suggest “that reducing medical bankruptcy rates in the United States will require substantially improved – not just expanded – insurance.” http://www.latimes.com/health/boostershots/la-heb-obamacare-insurance-costs-03082011,0,7832154.story To determine if RomneyCare had cut the number of bankruptcies, the research team examined a random sample of Massachusetts bankruptcy filings from July of 2009.  After sending surveys to 500 households, they compared the results to national and Massachusetts data assembled during 2007.  The Massachusetts healthcare law went into effect in 2008. According to Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, one of the study’s authors, health insurance in Massachusetts has risen since RomneyCare was implemented.  “It’s really too much money for the average family – especially if the breadwinner is the one who gets sick,” she said.  “We need to reduce limits on deductibles and out-of-pocket costs.”

“People think they have reasonable insurance until they try and use it,” said Dr. David Himmelstein, another study author.  “You are carrying an umbrella and it starts to rain and you put it up and it’s full of holes.  For most people, it just hasn’t rained yet.”  High premiums, large co-payments and deductibles mean that even families with insurance have to pay substantial out-of-pocket costs, said Himmelstein, a professor of public health at City University of New York.  Himmelstein said his survey’s findings suggest that the national health overhaul — which was modeled on the Massachusetts law and takes full effect in 2014 – is unlikely to ease the number of medical bankruptcies, either.

Sally Pipes, a conservative healthcare expert, is a long-time critic of the Massachusetts healthcare law.  “In fact, a substantial portion of Massachusetts’ newly insured still can’t afford to purchase even basic medical services, and are effectively no better off than before the law’s passage. Meanwhile, government health spending is spiraling out of control, adding to the state’s already massive public debt.  Nearly 30 percent of Massachusetts residents report that their medical costs have increased since MassCare’s implementation.”

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