What’s a health care consumer to do?

June 07, 2012 − by Aubrey − in Access to Care, Innovation, Storytelling & Resident Engagement, Systems Change − Comments Off

What can you get for $2.6 trillion these days?

• 8.7 million houses
• 200,000 Lear jets
• 6,500 new stadiums for the Broncos
• 500 international airports
• One year of health care in the US

Yep, that’s right. We as a country spent $2.6 trillion on our health care in 2010, over 10 times the $256 billion spent in 1980.

In the public policy world, we are almost numb to these gigantic numbers now—they are so large, we can’t even wrap our minds around them. And the enormity of the problem makes it feel very disconnected from the personal health care experience, which matters most to our friends and neighbors.

At a community presentation a few weeks ago, an audience member asked the panel of experts: “What can I do as a consumer whose dollars are coming out of my own pocket to lower the cost of health care?”

For me, this question framed the problem in an entirely different light.

Environmental advocates say that in order to protect the environment, we need to change the light bulbs and we need to change the laws. In other words, it takes both personal responsibility and a change to the system. It makes sense that in health care, the same rule would apply—to lower health care costs, it will take both personal responsibility and a change to the system. So, what’s a consumer to do?

Our health care system is set up in such a way that it’s rare that anyone knows how much anything costs or how much it should cost, which makes it especially difficult to be a smart consumer. If you are uninsured or underinsured, you are even more sensitive to pricing, but don’t have a good mechanism available to help you determine how much you will have to pay for care that you need. In fact, recent data from the Colorado Health Access Survey Affordability Brief shows that 38% of uninsured Coloradans have delayed or forgone care because of cost issues. At the state policy level, transparency of costs in health care will help us get closer to a consumer-friendly system; the All Payer Claims Database is currently being developed to collect and share this data.

However, the question remains as to how an individual can take more personal responsibility for lowering health care costs, beyond living a healthy lifestyle and utilizing care appropriately. Even though the answers are not as readily available as we would like it to be, we need to aim for that dual perspective as we continue our work. Once we are better able to understand cost in our state’s health care system, let’s ensure that Coloradans are able to use it in their health care decisions, just like they can in their grocery shopping. Success in changing the health care system will take both systemic change and individual effort, so it is our responsibility to continue working to make it possible for people to be smarter health care consumers.

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