February 23, 2017
Some Insured Workers Delay Healthcare
Stark differences are emerging in the ways that workers, depending on how much they earn, are using the medical services covered by their employer health plans.
While higher-income workers gravitate toward preventive and maintenance care, lower-wage workers visit emergency rooms far more often, according to a study published last month in Health Affairs. The researchers pointed to one major culprit: a 67 percent increase in average deductibles for employer health plans since 2010.
Employers usually offer the same health plans to all their employees. But the growing prevalence of high-deductible plans could be making making some low-wage workers think twice before seeing a doctor if they’ll have to pay the entire bill because they haven’t hit their yearly deductibles yet. Health insurance premiums and other out-of-pocket medical costs in high-deductible plans together consumed about 21 percent of pretax earnings for the low-wage workers studied.
Many of these workers, apparently trying to contain their out-of-pocket costs, might “avoid or delay health care services, despite having coverage,” said the researchers.
They analyzed four employers that covered some 43,000 workers through a common private health insurance exchange in 2014. The researchers adjusted the data so they could compare the employees, controlling for, among other things, health insurance plan design, deductible levels, employee characteristics, and the size of their households.
An analysis of insurance claims data found that lower-paid workers were more likely to see a doctor after medical problems develop, while higher-paid workers were more diligent about preventing problems.
For example, workers in the top two wage categories ($44,000-$70,000 and over $70,001) received preventive care during visits to the doctor’s office far more often than workers earning under $30,000. Screenings for breast, cervical and colon cancer were also more frequent among high-paid employees, who also adhered more closely to the drug regimens prescribed by their doctors.
Not surprisingly, hospital admission rates for lower-wage workers were nearly double the rates of the highest-paid workers – and four times higher for avoidable medical problems that landed them in the hospital. Low-paid workers visited emergency rooms about three times more often.
There are many potential reasons for these differences, including low-paid workers’ generally lower education levels and less access to paid time off from work to see a doctor. But the researchers said financial constraints certainly played a role: …Learn More
February 16, 2017
Rights of Low-income Medicare Users
A 2014 report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) said that the largest category of financial complaints by seniors was debt collection, with nearly half of their complaints involving “continued attempts to collect debt not owed.”
The CFPB just followed up with a missive directed at some 7 million older Americans enrolled in the Qualified Medicare Beneficiary Program (QMB). People who qualify for this Medicare designation receive such small Social Security checks – less than $1,010 per month for individuals and $1,355 for couples – that doctors, hospitals and other medical providers are barred from billing them directly for services rendered. The CFPB said that it, as well as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, continue to hear from QMB participants who report they are receiving unjustified medical bills.
Here’s how the CFPB suggests that QMBs or family members deal with improper medical billing:
- Prevent the problem by repeatedly reminding your doctor or medical service provider that you are a Qualified Medicare Beneficiary. QMB cards aren’t required federally but the District of Columbia and at least one state, Texas, provide members with a card to prove it.
- If you are billed, tell the medical provider or debt collector they are barred from charging you for Medicare deductibles, coinsurance and copayments, because you are enrolled in QMB.
- You have a right to a refund for a bill paid in error.
- If the medical provider will not stop billing you or refuses to issue a refund, call 1-800-Medicare (1-800-633-4227).
- Submit online complaints about debt collection practices by clicking here. …
November 8, 2016
On-the-Job Healthcare Costs More
We’ve passed a milestone: workers typically spend more than 10 percent of their incomes for their employer health coverage.
A decade ago, they spent 6.5 percent on health costs.
One reason for the rising cost burden is the growing prevalence of high-deductible insurance plans, and, within these plans, the deductibles themselves are increasing. Although premium hikes in employer plans have slowed in the past five years, they are also still going up. The nation’s aging work force could be another indirect pressure on costs.
Workers’ incomes have also been going up, but growth remained sluggish over the past decade and “have not kept pace” with employer health costs, the Commonwealth Fund reported.
Healthcare news in recent weeks has focused on the 2017 premium hikes hitting people who buy coverage on the state exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act. But 154 million Americans – more than half of U.S. workers – obtain health insurance through their jobs, compared with about 10 million who go through the exchanges, points out the study by the Commonwealth Fund, a healthcare research organization.
When premiums and deductibles are combined, health costs are really starting to bite: the typical family shelled out about $6,422 in 2015 for premiums and copayments, compared with $3,531 in 2006 – that’s increasing much faster than the pace of inflation – the report estimated. No wonder one recent survey found only a minority of Americans satisfied with the cost of their health insurance plans.
In the Commonwealth Fund’s state-by-state analysis, the level of incomes in a state seem to play a role in the weight of workers’ healthcare burdens. For example, premiums and deductibles, as a share of workers’ incomes, currently exceed 12 percent in low-wage states like Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee – Mississippi’s, the highest, is close to 15 percent of incomes. Workers in relatively well-off states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington, however, pay 7.9 percent, 7.3 percent and 8.5 percent of their higher incomes, respectively.
To examine the study’s state-by-state analysis, click here.Learn More
September 22, 2016
Seniors Enjoy More Disability-Free Years
Persistent increases in U.S. life expectancy are widely recognized. But if we’re living longer, what’s also important is whether those additional years of life are healthy years.
Even using this higher standard, the news is good.
A 65-year-old American today can expect to live to about age 84 – or about one year and four months longer than a 65-year-old in the early 1990s, according to a new study. But there was a bigger increase – one year and 10 months – in the time the elderly enjoy being free of disabling medical conditions that limit their quality of life.
The researchers, a team of economists and biostatisticians at Harvard, pinpointed two conditions that are the dominant reasons the elderly are remaining healthier longer: dramatic declines in cardiovascular conditions in the form of heart disease and stroke, and improved vision, which allows seniors to remain independent and active.
The study used medical data from a Medicare survey that asks a wide range of questions about the respondents’ ability to function and perform basic tasks. The researchers found a decline in the share of seniors reporting they have some sort of disability – to about 42 percent currently – and most of this decline occurred during the final months or years of a person’s life.
They also tried to identify the primary reasons for the health improvements, though they were cautious about these results. Heart attacks and strokes are major causes of death in this country. But cardiovascular disease is being treated aggressively – with statins, beta-blockers, even low-dose aspirin – and the treatments might have reduced mortality and the prevalence of heart attacks. …Learn More
September 8, 2016
Women Often Quit Work to Help Parents
Here’s just some of the evidence of the enormity of the challenge of caring for our elderly parents:
- One in three baby boomer women cares for an elderly parent.
- Even if they work, these caregivers devote anywhere from eight to 30 hours per week to that parent.
- The estimated value of informal senior care provided by family members approaches $500 billion in this country – or double the amount spent on formal, paid care.
Caring for an elderly parent is usually done with love or out of a feeling of familial obligation. But there are real costs to taking on this responsibility, which most often lands squarely on a daughter’s shoulders. These costs could come in the form of lost wages and employer health insurance or in sacrifices of future pay raises or promotions. It’s also more difficult for older women to find a new job if they drop out of the labor force to help an ailing parent.
According to preliminary findings in a new study that used 20 years of data, taking care of a parent does significantly reduce the chances that women in their early 50s to early 60s are working. Interestingly, the number of hours devoted to caring for a family member do not seem to affect women’s decisions about whether or not to work (though the researchers plan to revisit this finding).
But Sean Fahle of the State University of New York in Buffalo and Kathleen McGarry of UCLA said caregivers “may simply leave a job in order to provide care.” Their paper was part of a series presented at the National Bureau of Economic Research this summer. …
August 2, 2016
Rising Health Costs a Factor in Inequality
Inequality is frequently in the news. A new study puts an interesting spin on this now-familiar topic: rising health costs are a significant reason for wage inequality.
The cost of employer-provided health insurance is a larger share of lower-paid employees’ total compensation than it is for the people higher up in the organization. Since insurance costs have been increasing faster than total compensation, squeezing out pay raises, the nation’s lowest-paid workers feel it most.
For people with earnings at the 30th percentile of all U.S. workers, total compensation, including the cost of employer health insurance as well as actual earnings, increased by just 9 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1992 and 2010, according to data in a new study by Mark Washawsky at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Total compensation for high-paid workers at the 95th percentile grew 19 percent.
However, the rapidly rising cost of employer-provided health insurance took a larger bite out of lower-paid workers’ earnings – and out of their take-home pay. Inflation-adjusted earnings at the bottom rose by just 3 percent over the 18-year period, compared with a 17-percent increase at the top.
Washawsky correctly notes that employer-provided health insurance is a form of compensation that is valuable to all workers, regardless of how much they earn. The problem for workers living paycheck to paycheck is that they pay their day-to-day bills out of what’s left in that paycheck. That’s where you’ll find the inequality from rising healthcare costs.
So how should policymakers tackle U.S. inequality? Warshawsky argues that any prescription to reduce wage disparities should “focus on reducing the rate of increase in healthcare costs.”Learn More
July 12, 2016
What’s New in Public Pension Funding
A small group of researchers at the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, produces a large volume of analysis of the nation’s state and local government pension funds.
Their work isn’t typical of the personal finance information that appears in this blog. But it turns a bright light on the financial condition of the pension funds that millions of state and local government workers and retirees rely on. The bottom line, according to these studies, is that while some funds are in poor condition, many more are managing.
The following are short descriptions of the Center’s recent reports, with links to the full reports:
- The big picture is updated in the new brief, “The Funding of State and Local Pensions: 2015-2020.” Eight years after the financial crisis, new data have confirmed that pension plan funding stabilized in 2015. And despite poor stock market performance last year, plan funding improved slightly in 2015 under traditional accounting methods. On the other hand, funding is slightly lower under new accounting rules that require the plans’ financial statements to value their investment portfolios at market values.
The appendix in this brief provides funded levels for 160 individual plans in the Center’s public pension database.
- “Are Counties Major Players in Public Pension Plans?” The answer in this report is no, with the exceptions of California, Maryland and Virginia, where counties account for about 15 percent of pension assets.
- While retiree health plans are quickly disappearing at private employers, they remain prevalent in the public sector. These plans are not fully funded, and their unfunded liabilities are relatively large – equivalent to 28 percent of all liabilities for unfunded public pension plans – according to a March report, “How Big a Burden Are State and Local OPEB Benefits?”
- New accounting rules, known as GASB 68, require city pension funds that are joint participants in plans administered by their state, to transfer their net unfunded liabilities from the state’s to the local government’s books. …