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Traffic Triples Risk of Heart Attack

June 9th, 2009 by Penny Hagerman

For the sake of your health, keep your cool in traffic!

For the sake of your health, keep your cool in traffic!

Enduring traffic can be more than a little stressful.

From rude drivers, to constant stop and go, to accidents that inevitably tie up major thoroughfares, it’s all some of us can do to keep our tempers from flaring and taking our frustrations out on everyone around us—like that guy who just cut us off or the driver who squeezed in at the front of the line where the road narrowed.

But no matter how badly you’re tempted, don’t do it. In fact, don’t do anything but try to relax while sitting in heavy traffic. Not only could you risk your health if you do otherwise; you could also risk drastically raising your health and auto insurance rates.

How? According to a new German study, traffic can be heartbreaking. The pollution and exhaust we breathe while backed up on the freeway seems to exact a heavy toll on our health.

Combine that with increased stress levels, concentrated emissions and amplified noise, and research now shows our risk of heart attack soars to more than three times the norm for up to an hour after sitting in heavy traffic.

How do we know? Researchers at the Institute of Epidemiology in Munich, Germany, interviewed 1,454 people who waded through traffic and then suffered a heart attack within 60 minutes.

The study tracked what participants did the day of the heart attack, where they went, their means of transportation and the amount of time they spent in traffic.

Analysis and follow-up showed their risk of heart attack multiplied 3.2 times normal rates.

Of course, those in poor health, the elderly and children topped the list of those at greatest risk. But even more puzzling: traffic proved five times more dangerous to women than men. It will take some work to find out why.

Drivers weren’t the only ones affected, either. Bus and bicycle riders suffered just as much, leading researchers to suspect a strong pollution/heart attack connection.

Annette Peters, PhD, who led the study, says, “One potential factor could be the exhaust and air pollution coming from other cars. But we can’t exclude the synergy between stress and air pollution that could tip the balance.”

Efforts are now underway to try and determine the effect various elements have on humans sitting in traffic. Meanwhile, until results are more conclusive, you might want to try taking “the road less traveled,” to borrow a phrase—and avoid heavy traffic whenever possible.

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Sleep and Health: the Undeniable Connection

June 5th, 2009 by Penny Hagerman

Does a lack of sleep leave you like this every day?

Does a lack of sleep leave you like this every day?

Do you struggle to get enough sleep, like about half the adult population in our country?

If so, you probably feel sluggish during that “low point” in your day, when you just can’t seem to hold your eyes open without a double mocha latte or a shot of cappuccino.

Well, you may be able to glide through your week on five or six hours of sleep a night for a while; but eventually, a lack of sleep will catch up with you—in more ways than one.

Unfortunately, struggling to stay awake during the day may be the least of your worries, scientists say. A recent article in the New York Times revealed the true effects of sleep deprivation: health problems such as high blood pressure, cancer, obesity, depression, diabetes and heart disease.

And issues like that can also affect your insurance rates, as many who buy private health insurance later find out.

The amount of sleep each person needs varies, with some breezing through their days on just a few hours’ slumber and others barely functioning without nine or 10 hours. But new research shows that most people need between seven and nine hours to stay both alert and healthy.

“Lack of sleep disrupts every physiologic function in the body,” says Eve Van Cauter, a sleep researcher at the University of Chicago.

It’s this disruption in the body’s basic processes that can cause things to go awry, leading to all kinds of health problems we may never encounter otherwise.

But that’s not all. Recent studies also indicate that the amount of time a person spends sleeping affects his or her chances of living a long life.

“There’s recent evidence showing—in both men and women in several countries—that chronic sleep deprivation increases risk of early death,” Carl Hunt, MD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health, told WebMD recently.

Several large sleep studies cite other problems connected with sleep deprivation too: problems like poor work performance, driving accidents, relationship problems and issues with mood and anger.

If you struggle with insomnia, or don’t get to bed early enough to get a full eight hours, you could be affected more than you know. Find out how deadly a lack of sleep can be—and do what you can to stay healthy, get enough sleep and live long.

More Resources on the Sleep/Health Connection:

At Every Age, Feeling the Effects of Too Little Sleep

Scientists Finding out What Losing Sleep Does to a Body

Sleep Habits: More Important Than You Think

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Feasting on Flesh and Blood

June 3rd, 2009 by Penny Hagerman

bedbugHave you ever awoken one morning to discover red, itchy bumps on your skin—or a rash you couldn’t explain?

You know they weren’t there the night before; yet red welts now cover your skin, some may even blister, and you have no idea how they got there.

Well, guess what? You may be a victim of bed bugs, those nasty little creatures that sometimes infest our homes, apartments, hotel rooms, hospitals and college dormitories; hiding in mattresses, bedding, under baseboards or loose wallpaper and coming out at night to feast on our flesh and blood.

Nasty, huh?

It sounds worse than it really is. Though transmission of more than 40 human diseases has been attributed to bed bugs, there is little evidence that they transport any communicable disease, says Jerome Goddard, Ph.D., of Mississippi State University, and Richard deShazo, M.D., of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, both of whom recently examined the medical effects of bed bugs on health.

Though in extreme cases, bed bug bites may cause severe skin reactions in some, the body’s usual response is those small red bumps you may have already discovered, which tend to heal on their own without incident.

However, once infestation occurs, eradicating those little nuisances from your home may be harder than you think.

If you suspect you may have bed bugs, don’t let embarrassment get the best of you—and don’t just put up with the little critters. Read our article titled, “Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite,” take steps to protect yourself and your family, and get rid of those nasty things now.

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The ‘Real Sugar’ Scam

May 22nd, 2009 by Jeb Foster

pepsi-and-mountain-dew-throwback-still-not-healthyLook, I’m not a fan of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It’s terrible for your health, and the industrial cultivation of government-subsidized corn pollutes our environment and corrupts our political system.

But real sugar is not a panacea. More to the point, it does not make soda any healthier. Period. I don’t care if it’s free-trade, organic, straight-from-the-cane sugar that has been blessed by the Dalai Lama. Soda, whether it’s flavored by sugar or HFCS (both of which contain similarly high levels of fructose, believe it or not), will continue to grow waistlines, rot teeth and hasten death by heart disease and diabetes, in the process clogging emergency rooms, and raising health care costs and insurance premiums. (Heart disease and diabetes are the country’s number one and seven killers, and they are also some of the most expensive medical conditions to treat.)

By all means, enjoy your real-sugar-sweetened Pepsi Throwback. Some say it tastes better. Just don’t let savvy marketers convince you that what you’re drinking is healthy. It isn’t! (You’re better off taking your chances with a mug of unsweetened hot tea.)

Or, for those who speak Yoda: Real sugar does not a healthy drink make.

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E-Prescribing Catching on

May 15th, 2009 by Penny Hagerman

When your doctor prescribes a medication, does he or she write out a hard copy—illegible

Does your doctor prescribe medications online?

Does your doctor prescribe medications online?

signature and all—and hand it to you as you exit the office?

Unless you enjoy that long line at the drug store as you wait for your prescription to get filled, or like waiting for days on end for that three-month supply to arrive by mail order, you may be in for a pleasant surprise.

These days, lawmakers and many health insurance companies are urging doctors to stop wasting their time doing things the old-fashioned way—and start making things easier for themselves and their patients.

Instead of writing prescriptions out longhand, they’re asking all but the 70,000 physicians who’ve already converted to go modern and begin prescribing online. They say doing so will help reduce the cost of drug delivery—to the tune of twenty-something billion dollars (with a ‘b’), and eliminate the 1.5 million adverse drug reactions that occur annually.

Here’s how it works. Using e-prescriptions, when a doctor is ready to prescribe a drug, he simply logs in to a centralized service, accesses the patient’s medical records and insurance information, and enters the prescription stats.

Since all patient health records are stored together in one place, the doctor has a more complete view of medical histories and can prescribe the medication that fits each patient best. If there’s even the remote possibility of two drugs interacting poorly—or the patient is allergic to the drug prescribed—the system alerts the doctor immediately so he can choose a different drug.

As more health providers jump on the bandwagon, patients may not have to worry about mistakes like getting the wrong drug or suffering an allergic reaction due to human error much longer. Prescribing medications online removes most of the human element from the equation, leaving the system to make logical deductions based on fact.

In an effort to incentivize doctors to switch to a paperless system, Medicare and some private health insurance companies are now offering payment bonuses, free software and online training to physicians interested in trashing their prescription pads and going electronic instead.

Those insurance companies will benefit too, as the number of health claims filed due to medical mistakes decreases.

Though it will likely take some time, it will be interesting to see whether there’s enough motivation to convince doctors to support e-prescribing.

Old habits sometimes die hard. But at their patients’ and insurers’ urging, e-prescribing is definitely catching on.

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Feel the Burn?

May 8th, 2009 by Penny Hagerman

Steaming hot tea can be hazardous to your health!

Steaming hot tea can be hazardous to your health!

No, I’m not talking about calorie burn. I’m talking about that steaming hot cup of tea some of us enjoy every day.

I recently read some discouraging news: A new study shows that, if drank too soon after brewing, hot tea can be hazardous to your health—and lead to deadly throat cancer!

As a dedicated tea drinker, this news took the steam right out of my sails (pun intended). I don’t know about you, but for me, tea’s slightly odiferous flavor and moist steam, inhaled as I drink, heighten the appeal of its caffeinated goodness.

Without the steam, it just isn’t the same. After all, who likes lukewarm tea?

According to the study, recently published in the British Medical Journal, letting tea steep for four to 10 minutes—and cool a measly nine degrees—before drinking can cut the risk of cancer by half.

That seems significant. Not only does drinking too-hot tea put our health at risk; it puts insurance rates at risk too.

Maybe I’d better rethink my tea-drinking strategy!

For more information on these recent findings, read our article on tea drinking here. Then decide for yourself, and let us know your thoughts: is the trade-off in temperature worth it?

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Not Exactly a Vacation

April 30th, 2009 by Penny Hagerman

Going on a trip can be so much fun. While planning, packing and making arrangements for someone to watch the house or take care of the pets, the excitement builds.

Before you know it, you’re in the car or on the plane traveling to your destination.

Man's best friend may land him in the emergency room!

Man's best friend may land him in the emergency room!

But if you’re a pet owner, there’s one kind of trip you never want to take: a tumble over your dog or cat!

Not exactly a vacation—but a very real problem many pet owners don’t take seriously enough.

Most people have experienced near-misses with their pets…nearly stepping on the dog glued to their feet as they cook over the stove, or almost tripping on the dog as he runs down the stairs just ahead.

But if you’re one of the more than 86,000 people who land in emergency room every year because you’ve tripped over your pet, you realize just how dangerous pets really are underfoot.

And the home isn’t the only place pet-related falls occur. They can also happen outside the home. For instance, if your dog becomes too excited while out for his daily walk, you could trip over his leash—or the curb—as he surges to chase another animal.

Bad weather only accentuates the problem, especially for the elderly, who lack balance and peripheral vision, says Idaho-based veterinarian Marty Becker. If they start to trip, Becker says, seniors can’t catch themselves.

This is “the same group who trips on throw rugs,” he adds.

According to Dr. Richard O’Brien of the American College of Emergency Physicians, fractures of the ankle or wrist are the most common injuries doctors see in emergency rooms. But a senior who falls may break a hip, leading to a myriad of other health issues.

Then there’s the matter of cost. Though your health insurance company may recognize the fact that your beloved dog or cat provides unconditional love and helps keep your blood pressure and stress levels at bay, it may raise your rates if you trip over your pet and land yourself in the hospital one time too many.

So watch out for your beloved tabby, do what you can to help avoid injury, and keep yourself and your family safe from the hazard of pet-tripping.

A stay in the hospital is no one’s idea of a vacation!

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The End of Private Insurance?

April 20th, 2009 by Jeb Foster

Could the private health insurance market unravel with the passage of President Obama’s health care plan? That’s what the Wall Street Journal’s editorial team thinks will happen. Indeed, they say the plan is “the beginning of the end of private health insurance.” Here’s why they worry:

Obama hopes to introduce a public insurance option—a government-issued insurance policy that would essentially be Medicare for the middle class. Journal editorialists see an ulterior motive.

This public option will supposedly ‘compete’ with private alternatives. As President Obama likes to put it, those who are happy with the insurance they have now can keep it — and if they happen to prefer the government offering, well, gee whiz, that’s the free market at work. The reality is far different. Not only will the new program become the default coverage for the uninsured, but Democrats intend to game the system to precipitate — or if need be, coerce — an exodus to government from private insurance. Soon enough, that will be the only ‘option’ left.

The Wall Street Journal believes that the existence of a cheap, comprehensive public plan will make private insurance increasingly unattractive—to the point where insurers are left with no customers and we wake up one morning with a de facto single-payer system, like Canada’s.

Not surprisingly, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the lobby that represents insurers, has gone on record opposing the idea of introducing a public insurance option.

AHIP supports the idea of a ‘universal mandate,’ a law requiring Americans to obtain health insurance. Under a universal mandate, insurers would be required to accept all applicants, regardless of age or pre-existing conditions. Massachusetts currently has such a mandate.

So far, President Obama has come short of endorsing a universal mandate, preferring to make insurance cheap enough and accessible enough that people will opt to buy it on their own.

Insurers needn’t get too nervous about an Obama health care plan: if the past is any indication, we’ll have our current system for the foreseeable future. Health care reform has a distinguished record of failure; from President Truman to President Clinton, plans have come and gone.

Bonus: Dr. Mario supports universal health care:

A basic human need like health care should not be monetized. Even our pack dinosaurs and humanoid mushrooms deserve coverage—a healthy workforce generates more points and 1-ups, increasing the chances of long-term gameplay for everyone.

Link

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Gastric Bypass Offers New Life for the Obese

April 15th, 2009 by Penny Hagerman

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 66 percent of adults age 20 and over are either overweight or obese. That means that close to three out of four people have a body mass index—a measure of overall body fat—of 25 or more.

That may not sound too bad on the surface, but it really is, considering a healthy BMI ranges anywhere from 18 to 25.

All that extra fat and weight we’re carrying around costs us billions of dollars in health care dollars every year. Why? Because the heavier America gets, the more preventive, diagnostic and treatment services we need to overcome the medical issues obesity causes.

Anyone who has “dieted” at some point in their life (and who hasn’t?) knows how hard it is to lose that extra weight and keep it off. For some, weight loss and gain becomes a self-defeating cycle, causing discouragement and even more weight gain.

Whether caused by a lack of self control—as some critics believe—a negative hereditary scorecard, food addiction, lifestyle or one of many other factors, the end result is the same: living life overweight results in numerous health problems, a lack of quality of life and, often, early death.

For those overweight enough to carry a BMI of 40 or greater—basically 100 extra pounds—gastric bypass surgery may be an option. During the surgery, the stomach pouch is made much smaller than normal, reducing the amount of food a person’s stomach can hold.

This enables overweight and obese adults to lose large amounts of weight quickly—and gives them a chance to:

  • reestablish healthy eating and exercise habits
  • reduce or eliminate health issues like hypertension, diabetes and other dangerous diseases
  • start life anew thinner and healthier
  • live longer

Though definitely not a cure-all and subject to human error (like overeating, which can stretch the stomach back out), studies have shown that, when used as a long-term tool, gastric bypass drastically reduces the number of health insurance claims filed due to obesity.

Because of this, more and more health insurance companies are covering the surgery in an effort to get and keep America healthy, and save money in the long run.

If you’re severely overweight and aren’t sure if gastric bypass is a covered option under your current health insurance plan, try reading the fine print—or call your health insurance company to find out for sure.

Then talk to your doctor, get educated, and weigh the pros and cons. With all the facts at your disposal, the final choice is up to you—and your insurer.

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Overweight Kids Facing Ill Health as Adults

April 2nd, 2009 by Penny Hagerman

Does this look familiar in your home?

Does this look familiar in your home?

Childhood obesity is quickly becoming an epidemic in our country. Of concern to parents, doctors and health insurance companies alike, more than one-third of all children in the U.S. now fall in the overweight or obese category.

What’s so bad about a few extra pounds? you ask. Don’t most kids outgrow that “chubby” phase and grow up to be slim, average-sized adults?

Some do. But even if they lose excess weight as adults, chubby kids aren’t guaranteed a healthy life, says a study by the Institute of Preventive Medicine.

According to that study, obese children actually have a significantly higher risk of heart disease in adulthood—as early as age 25—even if they lose the excess weight.

And heart disease isn’t the only health risk that threatens. Other weight-related illnesses like diabetes and hypertension also rear their ugly heads as overweight children age.

Experts predict that by the time today’s adolescents turn 35, up to 37 percent of men and 44 percent of women will be obese. With that much risk inherent, finding good health insurance is also likely to become challenging.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. By becoming good examples, demonstrating a healthy lifestyle and teaching our kids to be active and eat nutritiously from the time they’re young, we can help them stay healthy, get insured—and maybe even live longer.

For more information on this growing epidemic, read our article titled Weigh in: do your kids make the grade?

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Creepy Crawly Things

March 19th, 2009 by Penny Hagerman

black-widow1If you’re anything like me, the thought of a spider crawling on your body gives you the heebie-jeebies.

And at night, when the world is quiet and serene, the idea that the same spider could somehow land on your face, crawl into your open, snoring mouth and actually go down the hatch is enough to make you upchuck.

But can they really do all that?

As far-fetched as it sounds, some people believe anything can happen when you’re asleep—including spiders and other bugs crawling into your mouth.

In fact, it’s been said the average sleeping person swallows up to 20 spiders during their lifetime. But try as they might, no one has actually been able to prove that supposed “fact” one way or the other.

Those on the other side of the fence say no way! If something moved on your face it would definitely awaken you—and you’d most likely swat it away. They call it an urban legend, something someone made up somewhere along the line just to prove how gullible man really is.

Like it or not, spiders populate homes all across the U.S. every day, hatching in damp, dark places like basements, corners…and under beds. You might even find one in your covers, if you look closely. Eeek!

Whether you believe the tale or not, we’d like to offer up this simple advice: don’t take any chances. When you go to sleep tonight—don’t sleep with your mouth open!

More Resources on the Subject:

Eight Spiders Don’t Swallow Everything

Guardian Unlimited

Myths, Misconceptions and Superstitions about Spiders

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The Health Insurance Gender Gap

February 27th, 2009 by Jeb Foster

Did you know that young women pay more for individual health insurance than young men? This despite young women being, on average, healthier and more responsible?

What gives?

In short, women pay more because they get more care. They schedule checkups. They follow up. And they also have babies, which, according to this report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, accounts for nearly 25 percent of all hospitalizations.

Even still, young also women pay more than men for policies that specifically exclude maternity coverage.

Alice Wolfson of United Policyholders, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, offered the following analysis to L.A. Times reporter David Lazarus.

“It doesn’t make any sense. The insurers aren’t assessing risk. They’re assessing how much healthcare is used, even when it’s preventive treatment.”

But according to Blue Shield spokesman Tom Epstein, also quoted in the L.A. Times article, gender-based underwriting is simply mathematics, not some nefarious scheme.

“Our egghead actuaries crunched the numbers based on all the data we have about healthcare. This is what they found.”

What’s more, insurers back the practice by saying it’s the same principle that has them charging young men more for auto insurance than young women. It’s not about gender, in other words, it’s about assessing risk. Women, because they typically get more care, are considered ‘riskier’ than men.

Needless to say, many critics are not swayed by this line of reasoning. Others understand the market-based calculation behind the practice, but think states should find a more socially desirable situation, such as community rating.

Community rating, in a general sense, is where everyone pays the same premium for the same policy, regardless of age or health status. Group health insurance essentially operates under a community rating system.

Other critics of the gender gap see a slippery slope. Where’s the line? Insurers look at gender now, will they look at race or ethnicity next? Political or religious affiliation?

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Maggots as Tiny Microsurgeons

February 25th, 2009 by Penny Hagerman

maggotsOnce used in times of war to treat wounded soldiers, medicinal maggots are making a comeback in modern medicine, healing wounds that might otherwise never heal—and saving a wad of cash on medical bills in the process.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Gladiator, you know medicinal maggot treatment originated in Rome, where the healing properties these miracle workers lend were discovered in ancient times.

When placed directly on an infected site, medicinal maggots, or tiny “microsurgeons” as some call them, do what surgeons can’t: go directly into infected tissue and secrete enzymes that dissolve dead tissue, kill bacteria and stimulate healing.

The creatures work quickly, clearing infection within 72 hours. And they cost much less than other, more traditional medical treatments, running around $100 per application.

Though maggot treatment stalled in the 1940s with the advent of modern antibiotics, its resurgence has caused some stir in the medical community—and some professional organizations, like the American Medical Association (AMA), now endorse their use as viable treatment, especially in cases where healing or open sores are a problem (as with diabetics and those with foreign masses, like brain tumors).

With successful results and recent medical endorsement, experts say it’s only a matter of time until health insurance companies begin covering this non-conventional treatment. In fact, in late 2008 the AMA outlined new guidelines for patient reimbursement following maggot treatment, paving the way for maggot therapy as a covered health insurance benefit.

For more information on medicinal maggot treatment, see our article, “Medicinal Maggots and Health Insurance.” Meanwhile, feel free to leave us your comments on this non-traditional therapy below.

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Extreme Athletes and Insurance

February 9th, 2009 by Jeb Foster

bmxerEver wonder how gravity-defying daredevils get insurance?

As you might imagine, many health and life insurers balk at offering individual coverage to these Evel Knievel types. Realizing this, a lot of extreme athletes resort to lying about their day jobs and, subsequently, about the cause of their injuries:

“A lot of them have fallen off curbs and hurt themselves,” skateboarder Biker Sherlock told the LA Times. (That, of course, is insurance fraud, which is a big no-no.)

The honest, when they can get covered, must pay incredibly steep rates. A BMX biker referenced in the same LA Times article pays $650 a month. (Multiply that times 12 and you can subtract your retirement.) Still, going without insurance in such a profession would be to tempt a much more expensive fate.

Travel insurance—for the thrill-seeking jet setter.
Rafting in Costa Rica. Skydiving in South Africa. Spelunking in Borneo. If you dabble in extreme sports during your vacations, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re covered in the event of an accident. There’s simply no such thing as a cheap medical evacuation—they run the gamut from ridiculously costly to ruinously expensive.

But check with your health insurance company before you purchase a travel insurance policy—you may or may not retain medical coverage when you leave the country.

The Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, offers some tips for buying travel insurance: “Reading the fine print is essential. For example, some policies will evacuate you to the ‘nearest appropriate hospital’ at the company’s discretion, while better ones provide evacuation to ‘hospital of choice’ at the policyholder’s discretion.”

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners wisely suggests getting a recommendation from a travel agent—they have the most experience with travel insurers and likely have the inside scoop on which ones are reliable.

Photo credit:  http://flickr.com/photos/djenan/

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Insurance for Families and Obama’s Election Platform

January 20th, 2009 by Lori Reed

Protecting your teenager with the right car insurance is really important—as is covering you and your spouse with life insurance and buying long-term care insurance to provide for your parents’ needs as they age.

But the overriding concern of many American families today is health insurance.

Barack Obama will be inaugurated today, so while we’re on the subject, now is a good time to review the stance he took on our health care system before he was elected to office.

The American economy changed drastically during the two years Obama was campaigning. Because of this, some of his more aggressive ideas will probably have to wait—just like his plan to roll back the tax cut for the wealthy.

Over 45 million Americans, including eight million children, don’t have health insurance. Eighty percent of those uninsured are actually part of working families—those with jobs that don’t provide adequate health insurance coverage.

But insurance for families is vitally important to our country’s future, so Obama says he plans to change all that.

He has many ideas on the topic. One of his more controversial statements was that he’d like to prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage on the basis of health or age. He would also mandate insurance for children and require employers to cover their workers with health insurance—or pay a payroll tax to help subsidize government coverage for the uninsured.

He’s also interested in improving the technology used in medical recording keeping, providing subsidies for low-income people, and making insurance plans portable from one job to the next.

How quickly he can carry ideas like these out—if at all—remains to be seen.

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To Have and to Hold–or Just to Insure?

September 10th, 2008 by Penny Hagerman

just-wed.jpg
‘For better or worse, richer or poorer, co-pays and deductibles, as long as you both shall live’–or until someone’s insurance runs out.

Sound familiar? OK, that’s a rather loose interpretation. But in these days of soaring cost and inflated medical expense, some couples are resorting to desperate measures for the health coverage they need–including marriage and divorce.

Finding themselves without insurance due to a job change, rising health insurance premiums, unplanned pregnancy or uncovered illness, more and more couples are rushing to the altar–or the courtroom–in record numbers to either begin or finalize marriages where one partner can provide insurance coverage for the other, or one can better qualify for the right health plan alone.

In fact, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, recently seven percent of adults said someone in their household had married during the past year to gain access to health insurance.

So much for the notion of romance!

Heartbreaking stories abound on this front, like the mother with cancer who divorces her husband so she can qualify for state-sponsored aid for the low income. Or the couple who broke up recently, then decided to get married–doubts or no doubts–for health reasons when they discover they’re unexpectedly expecting. Or the woman who is ill and needs surgery, but loses her job and feels she has no choice but to marry a man she hardly knows because she thinks she can’t afford insurance on her own.

Cases like these require tough decisions. And with the cost of prescriptions, emergency care, hospitalization and doctor bills hitting all-time highs, many discussions of marriage and divorce are now coming down to simple cost-benefit analyses.

Regardless of the final verdict, health insurance is critical to preventing illness and staying healthy. It just seems to me that major life decisions should be made for the right reasons; whether that’s love, money or health insurance coverage is for each couple to decide for themselves.

Health Insurance Resources:

Inexpensive Health Insurance
Catastrophic Health Insurance
Doctor Visit Insurance

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Crisco in the Crosshairs: New York City Trims the (Trans) Fat

December 11th, 2006 by Jeb Foster

hold the trans fat, please.jpgCivil libertarians are groaning. Chefs are insecure. But, presumably, health insurers are happy with New York City’s recent ban on trans fat. Why? Because fewer of their premium-paying customers will check into the clinic for heart problems.

First the low-down on trans fat: It’s terrible for you. According to Wikipedia, eating it tempts coronary heart disease. It’s also associated with obesity, diabetes and liver dysfunction.

Citing the American Journal of Public Health, the Wikipedia entry on trans fat claims the substance is responsible for 30,000 deaths annually in the U.S.

The problem, though, is age-old: What’s bad for you also tastes great. Will New York’s fries and cookies taste as good after the ban? Perhaps not, although many maintain that trans fat isn’t as crucial to flavor as many think. (Read a great article in today’s New York Times about how chefs are coping with the new regulation.)

Trans fat occurs in some food naturally, but most of the trans fat we consume is the result on an artificial process called partial hydrogenation. Because of the economics of production and, ironically, the erroneous belief that the trans fats of margarine were healthier that the saturated ones of butter, fast food companies incorporated trans fat into their recipes in the 1960.

Knowledge of the health hazards has many fast food operations scrambling to alter their frying techniques, however. In 2003, the FDA decided to require food manufactures to come clean about their use of the stuff. New York City joins Denmark in imposing a blanket ban on the use of trans fat.

With the exception of their New York restaurants, McDonald’s (it’s weird to call McDonald’s restaurant, isn’t it?) hasn’t been able to kick the trans fat habit. They say removing the lethal substance would “jeopardize the iconic nature of [their] french fry.”

I suspect, though, that their fries will retain their iconic nature in the trans-fat-free Big Apple.

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Specialty Drugs Drive Up Health Insurance Premiums

December 7th, 2006 by Megan Mahan

Health insurance premiums in Massachusetts are expected increase between 8 and 13 percent, driven primarily by the cost of expensive specialty drugs. The premium increases are expected to affect the rest of the country as well. pillz.jpg

According to a recent article by the Associated Press (published by the Insurance Journal, here), specialty drugs accounted for 19 percent–about $40 billion–of pharmaceutical spending last year. Express Scripts, a company that manages prescription programs, estimates that by 2009, that $40 billion figure will inflate to $90 billion, as new drugs and treatments emerge.

Specialty drugs:
Biotechnology treatments involving genetic engineering, unique treatments for rare diseases, cancer medications that have to be administered in medical facilities and other high-cost treatments.

Matthew Connell, the senior director of pharmacy services for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mass., told the Boston Globe, “The specialty drug slice of the pie is growing fast. It’s only about half of one percent of all pharmacy [prescriptions], but it accounts for as much as 13 percent of pharmacy costs.”

According to the AP, insurance companies, have, in the past, cited the rising costs of prescription drugs, higher costs from doctors and imaging technology for the increase in health insurance premiums. This is the first time they’ve included specialty drugs into the contributing factors.

Insures are trying to hold down the cost of health insurance premiums by taking efforts to control the use and cost of specialty drugs, reports the AP. Such efforts include requiring physicians to obtain permission before prescribing specialty drugs and barring the prescription and use of drugs not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Read the full AP report courtesy of the Insurance Journal here.

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STOLI on the Rocks

December 5th, 2006 by Megan Mahan

Major life insurance organizations, including the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI), the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting (AALU) and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA) plan to crack down on companies that pay elderly people to buy life insurance with the intention of selling the policies to investment groups, reports the Insurance News Network. And they’re calling for changes in state regulation to help curb the practice.

The NAIC says STOLI
undermines the basic premise
of life insurance.

These types of life insurance transactions, called stranger-oriented life insurance, or STOLI, has in the past been a way for policyholders to receive payment for life insurance policies they no longer need. The problem, notes a recent press release from the National Organization of Life and Health Insurance Guaranty Associations (NOLHGA), comes when financial companies seek out people who are insurable but have short life expectancies and who agree ahead of time to sell their policies for a fee.

These kinds of transactions have been around since the 1990s, say the NOLHGA, traced back to AIDS patients who had life insurance policies but wanted access to cash funds while they were living.

A third party paid the insured person a portion of the face value of the policy, knowing that an AIDS diagnosis at that time meant an early death. The buyer paid the premiums and collected the benefit when the person died.

According to a recent press release by the ACLI (viewable here courtesy of the Insurance News Network), The NAIC Viatical Settlement Model Law was enacted in 1993 to govern the sale of life insurance policies by terminally ill policyholders to unrelated third parties. In recent years, however, loopholes in that model were “exploited” by investors and hedge funds to allow STOLI transactions.

The ACLI President and CEO Frank Keating called STOLI arrangements “contrived transactions which circumvent the intent of state insurable interest laws.” Other industry critics of STOLI say the arrangements do nothing to protect the insured’s family or estate. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) also says STOLI undermines the basic premise of life insurance: that a policy’s beneficiary has a “legitimate, insurable interest” in the policyholder’s good health.

The challenge for the life and health industry lies in trying to simultaneously prohibit STOLI while not obstructing consumer rights and legitimate life settlements. In 2007, expect to see NAIC working with individual state insurance departments to adopt changes in the aforementioned model law.

Read more about STOLI issues courtesy of the NOLHGA and the Insurance News Network here and here, respectively.

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Mental Health Insurance

November 29th, 2006 by Maribeth Neelis

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Cutting health-care costs has become something of a national obsession. And rightly so, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the United States spent almost 1.7 trillion on health care in 2003, accounting for 15.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

Government agencies and insurance companies have concocted several strategies to stall rising costs–HSAs, consumer-driven health care and Medicaid cuts–which is why recent efforts by some states to widen insurance coverage is receiving push back from businesses and insurance companies.

Recently, the mental health insurance bill or mental health parity has been the unlikely star in the Ohio and New Jersey senates. The measure would provide equal health-care coverage for some mental illnesses, which goes against the trend of cutting health-insurance benefits in an effort to cut costs. But it seems the pendulum is swinging away from cost-costing maneuvers, at least on this particular point, as more people are speaking out for the issue.

…Read the rest of this entry »

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