Health is Wealth promotes affordable, transparent health care

Consumer Action celebrated 49 years of consumer successes during its annual convening and awards ceremony, held in late September via a series of virtual panels and an award ceremony, with advocates, allies and experts from the nonprofit, corporate and government sectors participating.
Published: Thursday, November 05, 2020

Consumer Action celebrated 49 years of consumer successes during its annual convening and awards ceremony, held in late September via a series of virtual panels and an award ceremony, with advocates, allies and experts from the nonprofit, corporate and government sectors participating. Titled Health Is Wealth, the occasion featured two timely panels—one detailing the problem of surprise medical bills and medical debt collection, and the other covering telemedicine and medical data protection—and Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Awards. The anniversary awards ceremony, which capped off the two-day event, honored Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman, for her regulatory work defending consumers’ right to fair health care; KHN (formerly Kaiser Health News), for its informative media coverage that helps consumers make good medical and healthcare decisions; and Families USA, for its work to keep healthcare coverage accessible and available to all.

Coming at a critical time—during a pandemic, with prescription drug costs and medical debts rising, and the current administration ramping up its fight to destroy the Affordable Care Act—Consumer Action chose the “health is wealth” theme to focus attention on the work of the individuals and organizations fighting on the frontlines for solutions to the problems impacting both the physical health and, by correlation, the financial health of those living in the U.S., especially the most vulnerable among us, including seniors, those with chronic illness, people of color, and those with low or no income.

Emmy Award-winning reporter and top consumer advocate (“Consumer Man”) Herb Weisbaum emceed both panels, featuring consumer, health care, legal and privacy experts from Families USA, the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), the Better Medicare Alliance, Clover Health (a Medicare Advantage provider), the Mid-Atlantic Telehealth Resource Center and the World Privacy Forum. Weisbaum kicked off the event by describing how medical debt is now the number one reason people file for bankruptcy in the U.S.

“Worrying about medical debt is actually making people sick!” Weisbaum proclaimed. “They’re putting off going to the doctor, they’re cutting back on their meds. In some cases, it’s causing depression.” As Weisbaum and the panelists noted, this avoidance of care leads to more serious medical problems and increased costs to the system. When medical issues aren’t dealt with when they’re small, consumers, terrified of the ensuing costs, end up rushing to the emergency room when their health deteriorates. There, they often incur insurmountable debts.

Panelist Jenifer Bosco, a staff attorney with NCLC (and contributor to NCLC’s “Surviving Debt,” which is free to read during the pandemic), added: “We hear a lot of stories about people having their wages garnished for medical debt, being sued for medical debt and in some cases having civil arrest warrants issued if they don’t show up in court.”

“There are a number of rights that consumers do have to avoid incurring and fight back against medical debt,” Bosco continued, pointing out that before a consumer gets to the point of a debt being referred to collections, they should explore whether or not there are financial assistance programs in place to help them. Nonprofit hospitals, for instance, are required to have “charity care” policies for low-income patients, while some states have laws that apply to for-profit hospital pricing as well. There may be insurance options that help with costs.

Panelists also emphasized the importance of reviewing all medical bills prior to making payments, and asking for itemized bills for a deep dive, since they frequently contain errors.

Some states offer legal protections against one of the worst types of medical debt—“balance billing” (i.e., “surprise” medical bills that result in balances owed when, unbeknownst to a consumer, their health insurance didn’t cover the entire cost of care). Consumer Action covered the topic in our Consumer Action News Summer 2020 issue, “Health and wealth: The connection,” where we list additional tips for dealing with medical debt.

“The bottom line is that Congress needs to address this,” said panelist Jane Sheehan, director of federal relations at Families USA, a national leader on healthcare issues impacting consumers. As Sheehan pointed out, regulations must occur at a federal level; most states have no protections against harmful billing practices, and there are many loopholes even in the states that do have such protections.

The next day’s panel addressed the related issues of medical data privacy and telemedicine, which has become increasingly utilized during the COVID outbreak—so much so that Consumer Action just released, in time for the convening, a new Telemedicine: What to know about virtual doctor visits fact sheet. Panel topics discussed included the effectiveness of, and access to, virtual healthcare; who can benefit from telehealth access (e.g., people in rural and underserved areas without access to broadband connections); new models for providing care (e.g., allowing patients to take their own blood pressure); and if and when services are covered by health insurance. The session also covered a disconcerting recent federal waiver giving “business associates” of entities subject to federal HIPAA health privacy guidelines greater authority to use and disclose patient data without approval from the HIPAA-covered entity that hired them. This of course raises serious concerns about the likelihood for misuse of patient data.

“I don’t think it is going to go back to the way it was before,” said panelist Sarah Green, vice president of commercialization for NextGen Healthcare, of access and coverage being limited to in-person doctor visits. Green cited the many benefits of telemedicine, “on the provider side, but certainly on the patient side.”

“Even in a COVID-free world, we want people to have the flexibility to get the care they need,” added panelist Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan, a cardiologist, geriatrician, and chief scientific officer at Clover Health. He pointed out that now is the time for patients to speak out regarding telehealth polices and concerns, particularly around what types of appointments are covered, how to access online appointments (through services like WhatsApp, Skype, etc.) and data privacy protections. “We are in a time period of great flux, and it’s really, at the end of the day, about your health, and your access, and your stories,” Dr. Dharmarajan told viewers.

After the panelists were done presenting, the third, and final, session—Consumer Action’s 2020 Consumer Excellence Awards ceremony—kicked off with Troy Clair, senior policy manager at Amazon and chair of the event host committee, in the role of emcee. Clair recognized the event sponsors, including presenting sponsor Amazon and underwriters JPMorgan Chase, Comcast, Facebook and TracFone. Find all sponsors listed here.

Clair introduced the first presenter, public interest antitrust attorney David Balto, who presented Consumer Action’s 2020 community award to Families USA Executive Director Frederick Isasi, for the nonprofit’s tireless work to strengthen and expand Medicare and Medicaid, obtain adequate funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), pass the Affordable Care Act, and more.

“We’ve had so many victories over the last years,” Isasi said, before adding that, in particular, “The last four years have been so difficult, a fight in every corner to maintain and protect the victories of the last decades. And then the COVID pandemic has laid bare the terrible inequities that exist in our society…We as a nation can and must be more just and fair and equitable.”

Los Angeles Times consumer columnist David Lazarus presented the award for media to KHN (Kaiser Health News) Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Rosenthal, for not just helping consumers stay on top of the latest news, but also helping them to understand the many moving parts of the healthcare equation, including the impact of the most recent healthcare developments and policies.

Doug Heller, an insurance expert with the Consumer Federation of America, introduced the final awardee, Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman, for consumer excellence in the regulatory arena.

“Within the last year, my department has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and worked tirelessly to ensure the insurance marketplace continued to meet consumers’ needs and adapt to a changing world,” Altman said. “Health care shouldn’t be a political issue, and no American should have to choose between their health and their rent, medication, or food on their family’s table.”

“We want to thank all of our generous sponsors, speakers and attendees, during these very difficult times, for your continued support of Consumer Action’s mission to protect and defend consumers—a mission that is more important now than ever,” concluded Consumer Action’s executive director, Ken McEldowney.

The virtual events raised $258,000. “We want our supporters to know that their generous donations will help us provide our newsletters and other crucial free information to consumers during the pandemic,” noted McEldowney.

 

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