Opinion

Christensen: Health literacy more important than ever for Arizonans in ongoing COVID-19 crisis

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted millions across the country, and Arizona has not been spared. This virus and its resulting economic fallout have put a harsh spotlight on rising health care costs for Arizonans and in particular the crushing burden of medical debt.

Even before the pandemic, research showed more than half of Americans with employer-sponsored health insurance had delayed or postponed recommended treatment for themselves or a family member due to cost.

Now, as insurers continue to make billions while rolling back services like COVID-19 coverage, it has never been more crucial for Arizonans to take the time to examine what different health plans do and do not cover. Health insurance practices are changing, and Arizonans need to be prepared.

With open enrollment beginning Nov. 1 for many Arizonans, it is vital that consumers be aware of the potential pitfalls that exist, including changes to COVID-19 coverage, surprise medical bills and junk health plans that fail to cover preexisting conditions.

October marks Health Literacy Month, and Consumers for Quality Care is helping Americans to understand their options for selecting health insurance coverage and making sure they know the details of the health care plans they are selecting.

Already, insurance companies are changing their policies when it comes to COVID-19. Nearly three-quarters of the largest health plans across the country are ending their COVID-19 cost-sharing waivers, a move that will only harm patients. Health care costs are continuing to rise for Arizonans, and CQC polling from ALG Research even found that 80% of Arizonans agree that the amount they pay for health care seems to be going up every year.

Consumers should not have to deal with crushing medical debt, especially during a pandemic that has caused unprecedented job loss and income reduction. It has never been more important to weigh the options and take considerable care when choosing a health plan.

Telehealth has become a lifeline for many Americans during COVID-19, including those in Arizona. While the state has already taken steps to expand access to these vital services, some insurers are continuing to roll back telehealth coverage, which has proven to have profound benefits even beyond the pandemic, particularly in rural and underserved communities who often lack easy access to health care services.

When selecting a health plan, consumers should understand how services like telehealth will be covered, and if they will be covered at all.

Surprise medical bills continue to be a major problem for Arizonans. Earlier this year, Sherri Brown, a long-time nurse, had to pay $48,000 in unexpected bills for her cancer treatment. Even when they do their due diligence, consumers like Brown are still getting stuck with surprise bills. Legislation passed by the U.S. Congress last year will protect many Americans from surprise billing starting next year, but details of the law are still being developed.

With many uninformed or in the dark about this ongoing legislative battle, consumers should always check if a provider is in-network and closely examine all medical bills before paying them.

With an estimated one-third of COVID-19 survivors identifying as having lasting effects from the virus, consumers in Arizona must be wary of junk health plans like short-term limited-duration insurance plans that often exclude coverage of preexisting conditions. Arizonans looking to save on health care costs should avoid STLDIs, which entice consumers with lower premiums but often leave them without adequate coverage when they need it most.

Whether it be tackling rising health care costs or addressing bad practices, lawmakers, state insurance commissioners, insurers and hospitals need to address rising health care costs and ensure all Americans can access the quality, affordable care they need and deserve.

In the meantime, CQC urges Arizonans to carefully examine their health insurance options during 2021’s Open Enrollment so they can make the best possible decision for themselves and their families.

Editor’s note: Donna M. Christensen served nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the first female physician elected to serve as a House member. She now serves on the board of directors of Consumers for Quality Care. Visit consumers4qualitycare.org.

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