Politics In Real Life: Rising Health Care Costs Weigh On Voters

May 3, 2016
Originally published on May 18, 2016 9:13 pm

When the health insurance premiums got to the point that they were higher than her mortgage, Renee Powell started to become cynical.

"There was something in me that just kind of switched," said the mother of two from Bartlesville, Okla. "I was OK with paying $750, but when it became about $100 more than my housing costs, it upset me."

Powell is an epidemiologist and used to work for the state in Oklahoma City. She had affordable insurance through that job.

But when her husband graduated from dental school, she stopped working, and the family moved to their current home, about 10 miles from the Kansas border.

She shopped for insurance through the Obamacare exchange and learned that rates in her new area were much higher than they had been in Oklahoma City. She bought a health plan from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma for $750 a month with a manageable deductible.

Then last year Blue Cross eliminated that plan — which is pretty common as insurers adjust to the Obamacare markets — and Powell was forced to buy the more expensive policy with a deductible of $3,000 for each person in her family. The insurance pays for checkups and prescriptions, but if anyone gets sick, Powell has to pay the full doctor bill until the deductibles are met.

Insurance Just Isn't Enough

While the Affordable Care Act managed to bring basic health insurance to almost everyone in the country — about 90 percent of Americans are covered — for many people it's not enough.

Rising deductibles and copayments can mean people don't get much benefit from paying monthly premiums. A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows deductibles rose about eight times faster than wages in the past 10 years.

That's taking a toll on people like Powell, even though they have insurance.

"The nature of insurance has been changing over the last decade, to the point where people's out-of-pocket costs are becoming a real struggle," said Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation. "More people are insured, but in many ways people are not insured enough."

High-deductible plans like Powell's, he said, are now the norm.

Powell has spent about $4,400 so far this year in premiums for that Blue Cross policy, and she said the plan has only paid a few dollars for antibiotics one of her boys needed when he was sick.

"I felt like we were paying money to the insurance company so that they could just sit on it and put it in stock," she said.

Now she and her husband are planning to buy insurance through his dental business, which is over the border in Kansas, where, for some reason, policies are much cheaper.

Surprise Costs

It's not just individual policies that are getting costly.

Melody Simon, a biomedical research project manager who lives in Detroit, is struggling to pay her bills, even though she has insurance through her work.

Simon was born with a birth defect that has required her to undergo seven surgeries. She needs medication and physical therapy.

Her insurance seems generous on its face — moderate copays and a $1,000 deductible for in-network care.

But her costs are also shooting skyward, in part because she moved last year to Detroit from Austin, Texas, and her insurance plan isn't as popular in her new city.

"It takes hours to find a provider that's not an hour away, that accepts my insurance and can also see me for my particular condition," she said.

She found a good doctor — in network — who performed her most recent surgery in December. But when she went back to see him at a different hospital for a cortisone shot to ease the pain in her arthritic foot — something she'd done many times back in Texas for about $40 — she was in for a surprise.

"It was like I was going into surgery. They brought me into the operating room and everything. And of course in my mind I'm like, 'What is all this pomp and circumstance for an injection?' " she recalled. "Of course, I should have known it was going to cost something ... and it did."

It cost her $832.96.

Simon's recovery from her December surgery has not gone well, and she's out of work on disability — which means she's only getting about 60 percent of her former salary. She's become totally dependent on her partner to get to physical therapy appointments and pay her bills.

Now they've decided to get married, just so Simon can get on her partner's health insurance, which is more generous than her own.

She said she hates the fact that they've made such a big decision for financial reasons.

"I don't think marriage should be an economic choice," she said. "It's pretty exciting, but I just wish this wasn't the circumstance that brought it about."

A recent poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that 26 percent of people say health care costs are still a very or somewhat serious problem for them or their families.

Those rising costs are not providing people with a sense of better care. According to that same poll, 45 percent say the cost of their health insurance premium has increased and 35 percent say their copays and deductibles have risen in the past two years, even though just 16 percent say their benefits have improved during that same time.

And voters are concerned as well. Almost 20 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans ranked health care as one of their top two concerns in the upcoming presidential election, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The economy and jobs were the top issue in both parties.

The candidates for the White House have an array of ideas to deal with the issue:

Democrats

Bernie Sanders has proposed "Medicare for All," which would give everyone free access to health care — meaning out-of-pocket costs would disappear altogether.

But that would come with a price tag: tax increases of 2.2 percent for individuals and 6.2 percent for employers. The Sanders campaign says that would save most people a lot of money in the end, while shifting the burden of health costs to wealthy taxpayers.

But some critics — even many left-leaning economists — say his numbers don't add up and that the tax increases would have to be much higher.

Hillary Clinton's proposal builds on Obamacare, and some provisions attack out-of-pocket costs directly. Most significantly, she's proposing a refundable tax credit to cover costs that exceed 5 percent of a person's income. That could potentially help people like Renee Powell.

Clinton also proposes capping costs for prescriptions, trying to limit how much premiums can rise and protecting people from surprise bills like Melody Simon got after her cortisone injection.

Republicans

All three Republican candidates want to repeal Obamacare.

Donald Trump says he'll cut people's costs by allowing them to deduct the cost of insurance premiums from their taxes and to put more money in a tax-deferred health savings account to pay for health care expenses.

He also wants to allow insurers to sell policies in any state, rather than only in those states where they are licensed.

Ted Cruz is also a proponent of this idea.

Both candidates say the increased competition will reduce insurance premiums so people can afford better policies. But some say this could lead to lower-quality insurance because some states have lower standards than others.

John Kasich is proposing ways to cut overall health spending, which, he says, will lower costs for everyone. He's pointing to initiatives in Ohio where the state is changing the entire payment system — rather than paying for each service separately, the state is putting a single price on all the care needed for an illness. That means doctors and hospitals don't have any incentive to order excessive tests or medications.


Powell and Simon both said they don't expect much from these candidates.

"I think it would help for them to know just how much this costs and what families are going through," Powell said. "I'm slightly disillusioned with pretty much everybody in the race."

Editor's Note: Politics in Real Life is a new NPR series looking at issues impacting people's lives and how they match up with rhetoric on the campaign trial. Follow along and join the conversation on social media: #PoliticsIRL

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Nevermind Obamacare, which mandated buying insurance. This is the story of people who have insurance, whether it is through the Affordable Care Act or through their jobs, the government, something else, and find out it does not cover all of their costs. This is an issue we are covering, whether the candidates are discussing it in detail or not. We're going to talk it through with NPR's Alison Kodjak, who's in our studios. Hi.

ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hasn't Obamacare raised the number of people who have health insurance?

KODJAK: It sure has. Almost everybody, really, has health insurance. It's up to about 90 percent of the people. But the costs that people are paying out of their own pockets, going way up.

INSKEEP: What kinds of costs are we talking about here?

KODJAK: Well, the premiums are high and rising a little bit every year. But what we're really talking about are deductibles, the amount of money you have to spend before your insurance even covers everything, and then co-pays, you know, what you pay when you go to the doctor. They used to be 15, $20. Now we're finding they're 45. Sometimes it's co-insurance, where you're paying a percentage of the entire appointment or a percentage of the cost of the medication.

INSKEEP: OK. That doesn't sound like so much. But talk me through some examples about how this affects people.

KODJAK: Yeah, so we talked to a woman named Renee Powell. She was out in Bartlesville, Okla. She's married with two kids. And last year, her insurance premium went from $750 to $1,100 a month.

INSKEEP: A month, OK.

KODJAK: And she's got a deductible of $3,000 per person in her family. So they have to pay about $12,000 before they're fully covered in a year.

RENEE POWELL: There was something in me that, it just kind of switched. I was OK with paying 750. But when it became about a hundred dollars more than my housing, it upset me. But, you know, it's kind of the law. So we got the coverage. And you know, we're just going with it.

INSKEEP: I'm just doing some math in my head. She's paying more than $13,000 a year, essentially, what must feel like - her, for nothing. It's just for catastrophic coverage.

KODJAK: That's essentially what she said. You know, she used to have really good insurance. She worked for the state of Oklahoma. She was an epidemiologist. But when her husband graduated dental school, she stopped working. They moved to a smaller town.

And when they went to buy their own insurance, they found that the premiums were really high. And then the insurance company dropped the first plan they had, and the premiums went up. And that's when they started facing these really high deductibles.

POWELL: I felt like I'm just paying money to the insurance company so they can sit on it and put it in stock.

KODJAK: Yeah, so she's pretty frustrated. And she and her husband considered going without insurance. But they think it's a little too risky.

POWELL: It's a lot of money. But you don't dare go without, you know, health care when you've got two small kids.

INSKEEP: And of course, she'd still be paying under Obamacare. You pay a penalty to have no insurance. So are any of the candidates talking about this - not just the premiums but, as you said, the deductibles, the extra costs, the co-pays?

KODJAK: Yeah, they are to some degree. I mean, let's start with the Democrats. Most people have heard Bernie Sanders' proposal. He wants to create this system called Medicare For All, which is essentially single-payer health care. It's not really free because you'd pay it through your taxes. He wants to raise taxes on individuals by about 2 percent, businesses by about 6.5 percent.

And that would guarantee health care for everybody in the country without having to pay anything out-of-pocket. There are a lot of people, including a lot of left-leaning economists, who don't think his numbers add up. But that would take care of the problem of having to pay something every time you go to the doctor and feeling like you're not covered.

INSKEEP: OK, what about Hillary Clinton?

KODJAK: She's got a more technical proposal. She wants to build on what - as she says, Obamacare. She is looking at offering what's called a refundable tax credit. You get money back from the government if you're out-of-pocket costs go up too high. And beyond that, she wants to cap costs for prescriptions. And she wants to protect patients from surprise bills. Like, some people get charged for an out-of-network anesthesiologist when they go into a hospital for surgery, even if the hospital's in-network.

INSKEEP: How do you protect someone from a surprise bill? What's a surprise bill or not a surprise bill?

KODJAK: Well, it's that kind of thing where all of a sudden you're paying this full doctor bill. And they would just require that if you're getting treatment in an in-network hospital that everybody has to take the in-network pay.

INSKEEP: We're going to get to the Republicans also. But you've got another example here, I believe, of how this affects people on a day-to-day basis.

KODJAK: Exactly, we talked to this woman, her name's Melody Simon, she's in Detroit. She was born with a birth defect in which she's had to have seven surgeries on her leg. She has a good doctor in her network who performed her most recent surgery just last December. And, you know, she went back to see him but at a different hospital for a cortisone shot to ease some pain. She's got arthritis in her foot. She'd done this a couple of times before when she lived in Texas, and it cost about $40. But this time, it cost a lot more.

MELODY SIMON: It was like I was going into surgery. They brought me into the operating room and everything. And of course, in my mind, I'm like, what is all this pomp and circumstance for just a, you know, injection? Of course, I should've known that it was going to cost something. And it did, $832.96.

INSKEEP: How did that unexpected $832 affect her?

KODJAK: Well, she's on temporary disability right now. So she's not making very much money. It was a big chunk of her money. She now is almost completely dependent on her partner to cover a lot of her bills because of her lower income. And things have gotten so high at this point that they've decided to get married because her partner's health insurance is much more generous than hers.

SIMON: We can't afford to plan a wedding back home. I mean, it is all financial actually. So we'll probably just elope, you know, get married at a justice's office or something.

INSKEEP: So someone really struggling there with an unexpected cost. We've heard about what Democrats want to do about this. What about Republicans?

KODJAK: Well, Republicans, all three of the major candidates are starting from the baseline that they want to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something else. But none of them have their plans specifically focused on these out-of-pocket high costs. Donald Trump's proposing a lot of tax breaks to help offset the cost of health care for people, deductions for their premiums and health savings accounts. But those tend to help wealthier people who pay a lot of taxes.

INSKEEP: Oh, because when you're paying a lot of taxes, that's when a tax break actually can help you a considerable amount.

KODJAK: Exactly, and if you're not paying a lot of taxes, the tax break doesn't help that much. Ted Cruz doesn't actually have such a detailed plan. But his campaign told me his major proposal is to help insurers sell policies across state lines, the idea being more competition will lower premiums. And that would help everybody.

Donald Trump favors the same thing. There are people who worry a little bit that that will lower the standard of health care across the country. John Kasich, he is looking more in the long term. He isn't focused on today's out-of-pocket costs. He wants to change the way the overall health care system is paid for. He's looking at instead of paying for each service, creating what they call bundled payments. So if you go in the hospital for a heart attack, the insurance company pays one price no matter how many tests they give you.

INSKEEP: Isn't this something being experimented with under Obamacare?

KODJAK: It is. And that's what he's pointing to, his efforts in Ohio that are actually done under Obamacare.

INSKEEP: Alison, thanks very much.

KODJAK: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Alison Kodjak, with our latest look at Politics In Real Life. Hey, let us know what issues in your life the candidates should be talking about. Tweet us or find us on Facebook. Just use the hashtag, #PoliticsIRL. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.