MONEY Insurance

6 Ways You’re Overpaying for Insurance

Kristina Lindberg—Getty Images

Yes, you can be too cautious. When the costs far outweigh the benefits, it's time to drop extra coverage.

If you really want to be safe, you could buy insurance for just about everything in your life. You can insure your car, home, life, possessions, and can even buy insurance to cover your funeral costs. But with all of that money going out the door, you might not have enough left over to enjoy those things you’re insuring.

Sometimes, the costs of insurance outweigh the benefits, and the money spent on premiums could be better spent elsewhere. Here are six times when it’s worth considering dropping insurance coverage.

1. Collision Coverage

Collision coverage protects your car if it’s damaged or suffers a total loss in an accident that you’re at-fault for. If you’re still paying off or leasing a car, your lender may require such coverage until you own the car outright.

But because vehicle values depreciate every year, the insurer will only pay up to the actual cash value of your car after you’ve paid the deductible. A vehicle’s condition is also factored, so knowing every year your car’s actual cash value — or Blue Book value — can help you determine if you should drop collision coverage.

One rule of thumb is to skip collision coverage if the vehicle’s cash value drops below $4,000. The cost of insurance for a low value car could cost more than the total vehicle repair and replacement costs in an accident.

Another rule is that if collision insurance costs more than 10% of the value of the car, then it’s worthwhile to drop it and put that savings aside for a new car. For example, if collision coverage costs $200 a year on a car valued at $2,000, it’s worth keeping the premium for yourself.

However, if you don’t have enough money set aside to pay for a major vehicle repair after an accident, then you may want to keep collision coverage.

It’s also worth having in case you are at-fault in an accident. Collision coverage is needed in such simple accidents as you rear-ending someone at a stoplight, running a stoplight and hitting someone, or backing out of your garage and hitting another car. Without it, you’ll have to pay out of your own pocket to repair the other driver’s car.

You also may want to consider where you’re driving before dropping collision insurance. Some areas aren’t as safe as they might seem, according to Auto Insurance Center. Some rural areas are more deadly to drive in than urban areas, the site found.

2. Comprehensive Auto Insurance

This type of auto insurance is usually sold together with collision coverage. Your insurance company may require having both. A comprehensive-only policy may be limited to special circumstances, such as for a classic car that’s rarely driven.

Comprehensive coverage covers you if the car is stolen, vandalized, or is damaged by fire, weather, natural disasters, or acts of God. It also provides coverage if you hit a house in a one-car accident, a deer or other animal runs into your car, you hit a fence, or experience damage in a riot.

Like collision coverage, it could be worthwhile to drop comprehensive coverage if your car isn’t worth much and repairing such damage would be more than the value of the car.

However, comprehensive is usually a small part of an insurance premium, and you may not be able to drop it unless you also drop collision coverage.

3. Rental Reimbursement

Some insurers include rental car reimbursement in their policies. You may need a rental car if your car is damaged in an accident and is at an auto shop for a few days. But if the accident is someone else’s fault, their insurance may pay for your rental car. If you’re at fault, it’s your expense.

Check to see how much you’re paying each month, or year, for this type of insurance, and determine if the costs outweigh what you’d pay yourself for renting a car. Is it worth the chance you’ll need it?

4. Roadside Assistance

The same logic goes with roadside assistance sold with your car insurance. Chances are you rarely use it and that you have it mainly for the peace of mind when you get on the road.

You may already have duplicate coverage by having AAA, OnStar, or some other service, so dropping this insurance coverage is a no-brainer. Or it may be cheaper to call a friend, relative, or even a tow truck when you’re out of gas or need a flat fixed.

5. Term Life Insurance

Having term life insurance is meant for exactly that: a “term” of your life. It’s a common type of insurance to buy when starting a family, so that your spouse and children aren’t left without income if you die during your working life.

But if your children are in college and no longer live at home, or you’re retired, then extending a term policy may not be worthwhile.

6. Insurance Riders

As part of your homeowners insurance, you may have bought riders to cover expensive items that aren’t covered under a normal policy. These can include expensive artwork, jewelry, or heirlooms you’ve inherited.

If you’ve sold such things or donated them to charity and no longer own them, then it’s time to drop these insurance riders.

Having too much insurance is an enviable problem. Whether it’s life insurance or over-insuring a home and its possessions, it’s a good idea to check with your insurance agent each year to determine if you have too much (or not enough) coverage.

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MONEY Health Care

The Danger Lurking in Your Medical Bills

Claire Benoist

Medical billing errors are more common—and more costly—than you might think. Here's how to give your bills a checkup.

Odds are, there’s a mistake in the medical bill that’s in your mailbox. A recent NerdWallet analysis of 2013 hospital audits by Medicare found that an average 49% of bills contained errors, and that some medical centers messed up on more than 80% of claims to Medicare.

Such errors now matter more than ever to consumers: Greater health insurance cost sharing means that a mistake can take serious money out of your pocket. “If you’re responsible for the first $5,000 or $10,000 of your care, you’re going to want to be more attentive,” says Stephen Parente, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management who studies health finance.

But billing errors can be tough to spot, and tougher to remedy. Disputes can go on for months, and if you don’t take the right steps, your account could be put into collections in the meantime—a recent report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that a whopping 52% of all debt on credit reports is due to medical bills. Follow these steps to ensure a clean bill of health:

Understand your bill

Step one is knowing exactly what you’re being charged for. Can’t tell from the bill? Ask the provider for an itemized statement, says Pat Palmer, CEO of Medical Billing Advocates of America, a professional organization that assists individuals and companies with medical costs and disputes. Doctors use standardized numerical “CPT” codes to categorize treatments, and you can Google the numbers to find out what they stand for.

Question discrepancies

If the price strikes you as high for the services rendered, “follow your gut and investigate,” says Mark Rukavina, principal at Community Health Advisors, a hospital consultancy. Your insurer may offer an online price transparency tool. If not, try Guroo.com, a website that shows the average cost by area for 70 non-emergency diagnoses and procedures. A big discrepancy suggests that you should start asking questions.

Next, compare the bill to the explanation of benefits you get from your insurer. If these differ on the amount you owe, that can be another red flag, says Erin Singleton, chief of mission delivery at the nonprofit Patient Advocate Foundation.

Source: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Diagnose errors

Even if you don’t have sticker shock, give your invoice a close read. Some common mistakes can be easy to spot. They include services that weren’t performed, tests that were canceled, and duplicate charges, says Kevin Flynn, president of HealthCare Advocates.

Palmer says one of the more frequent errors she sees is providers charging patients separately for things that are supposed to be under one umbrella, such as a tonsillectomy and adenoid removal. Ask your provider about this if you are billed item by item for something that might be one procedure.

Remedy the problem

When you spot an error, ask the billing department to start a formal dispute. Put your concerns in writing. Include any documentation you have and request that the provider support its claim as well, says Palmer. Also, notify your insurer, which can be a good ally if the company will be on the hook for part of the charge.

Typically you don’t have to pay disputed charges until the investigation is complete, but do pay the rest of the bill. And always respond promptly to billing communications so that charges aren’t sent to collections. That’s a very real risk; one in five credit reports is married by medical debt, with an average of $579 in collections. Fortunately, relief is on the way—the three major credit agencies recently agreed to institute within the next few years a 180-day grace period before adding medical debt to credit reports (now there is no official grace period) and to remove debt from a report if the insurer pays the bill.

Rukavina says that, with persistence, you should be able to resolve most disputes on your own. But if you’ve been fighting to no avail for more than a month or so, consider hiring a medical billing advocate to work on your behalf. Find one via billadvocates.com or claims.org. You’ll likely pay an hourly rate starting at around $50 or a fee of about 30% of what you’ll save. But that could be pocket change compared with what you’d owe otherwise, not to mention what a ding to your credit score could cost you.

Read Next: The Debt You Don’t Know You Have

MONEY Medicare

Congress Just Passed a Medicare ‘Doc Fix.’ Here’s What That Means to You

doctor with money in his lab coat pocket
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

Both houses have approved an overhaul to how Medicare reimburses doctors. Will that mean higher costs for seniors?

Medicare’s troubled physician payment formula will soon be history.

As expected, the Senate Tuesday night easily passed legislation to scrap the formula, accepting a bipartisan plan muscled through the House last month by Speaker John Boehner and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. The Senate vote came just hours before doctors faced a 21% Medicare pay cut.

Under the bill, the current reimbursement schedule would be replaced with payment increases for doctors for the next five years as Medicare transitions to a new system focused “on quality, value and accountability.” Existing payment incentive programs would be combined into a new “Merit-Based Incentive Payment System” while other alternative payment models would also be created.

“Passage of this historic legislation finally brings an end to an era of uncertainty for Medicare beneficiaries and their physicians—facilitating the implementation of innovative care models that will improve care quality and lower costs,” said Dr. James L. Madara, chief executive officer of the American Medical Association. “Patients will be able to get the care they need and deserve.”

The Senate voted 92 to 8 to approve the legislation, which the House passed 392-37.

It now moves to President Barack Obama, who—shortly after the Senate vote—said he would sign the bill, calling it “a milestone for physicians, and for the seniors and people with disabilities who rely on Medicare for their health care needs.”

There’s enough in the wide-ranging measure for both sides to love or hate. “Like any large bill it’s a mixed bag in some respects, but I think on the whole it’s a bill well worth supporting,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday.

The bill includes two years of funding for an unrelated program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. GOP conservatives and Democrats are unhappy that the package isn’t fully paid for, with policy changes governing Medicare beneficiaries and providers paying for only about $70 billion of the approximately $210 billion package. The Congressional Budget Office has said the bill would add $141 billion to the federal deficit.

Consumer and aging organizations also have expressed concerns that beneficiaries will face greater out-of-pocket expenses on top of higher Part B premiums to help finance the way Medicare pays physicians.

But lawmakers said they had struck a good balance in their quest to get rid of the old system. “I think tonight is a milestone for the Medicare program, a lifeline for millions of older people,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “That’s because tonight the Senate is voting to retire the outdated, inefficiency rewarding, common sense-defying Medicare reimbursement system.”

For doctors, the passage is an end to a familiar but frustrating rite. Lawmakers have invariably deferred the cuts prescribed by a 1997 reimbursement formula, which everyone agreed was broken beyond repair. But the deferrals have always been temporary because Congress has not agreed to offsetting cuts to pay for a permanent fix. In 2010, Congress delayed scheduled cuts five times.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the legislation and the congressional ritual known as the doc fix.

Q: How would the bill change the way Medicare pays doctors?

The House package would scrap the old Medicare physician payment rates, which were set through a formula based on economic growth, known as the “sustainable growth rate” (SGR). Instead, it would give doctors an 0.5% bump in each of the next five years as Medicare transitions to a payment system designed to reward physicians based on the quality of care provided, rather than the quantity of procedures performed, as the current payment formula does. That transition follows similar efforts in the federal health law to link Medicare reimbursements to quality metrics.

The measure, which builds upon last year’s legislation from the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees and the Senate Finance Committee, would encourage better care coordination and chronic care management, ideas that experts have said are needed in the Medicare program. It would reward providers who receive a “significant portion” of their revenue from an “alternative payment model” or patient-centered medical home with a 5% payment bonus. It would also allow broader use of Medicare data for “transparency and quality improvement” purposes.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., one of the bill’s drafters, has called it a “historic opportunity to finally move to a system that promotes quality over quantity and begins the important work of addressing Medicare’s structural issues.”

A “technical advisory committee” will review and recommend how to develop alternative payment models. Measures will be developed to judge the quality of care provided and how physicians will be rewarded or penalized based on their performance. While the law lays out a structure on how to move to these new payment models, much of their development will be left to future administrations and federal regulators. Expect heavy lobbying from the physician community on every element of implementation.

Q. Will seniors have to help pay for the plan?

Starting in 2018, wealthier Medicare beneficiaries (individuals with incomes above $133,500, with thresholds higher for couples), would pay more for their Medicare coverage, a provision expected to impact 2% of beneficiaries.

In addition, starting in 2020, “first-dollar” supplemental Medicare insurance known as “Medigap” policies would not be able to cover the Part B deductible for new beneficiaries, which is currently $147 per year but has increased in past years. If the policy had been implemented in 2010, it would have affected Medigap coverage for roughly 10% of all 65-year-olds on Medicare, according to an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Based on declining Medigap enrollment trends among 65-year-olds, expect this policy to impact a smaller share of new Medicare beneficiaries in the future, according to the study. (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Experts contend that the “first-dollar” plans, which cover nearly all deductibles and co-payments, keep beneficiaries from being judicious when making medical decisions because they are not paying anything out-of-pocket and those decisions can help drive up costs for Medicare.

The bill also includes other health measures — known as extenders — that Congress has renewed each year during the SGR debate. The list includes funding for therapy services, ambulance services and rural hospitals, as well as continuing a program that allows low-income people to keep their Medicaid coverage as they transition into employment and earn more money. The deal also would permanently extend the Qualifying Individual, or QI program, which helps low-income seniors pay their Medicare premiums.

AARP, a seniors’ lobby group, sought to repeal a cap on the amount of therapy services Medicare beneficiaries could receive, telling senators that it would be a “key vote” for the organization.

“Similar to the SGR debate, an extension of the therapy cap — rather than full repeal — is short-sighted and puts beneficiaries in a dire situation when the extension expires,” AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond wrote in a letter to senators. “This amendment is important to the overall success of the Medicare program and the health and well-being of Medicare’s beneficiaries.” The amendment failed.

Q. What about other facilities that provide care to Medicare beneficiaries?

Post-acute providers, such as long-term care and inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and home health and hospice organizations, would help finance the repeal, receiving base pay increases of 1% in 2018, about half of what was previously expected.

Other changes include phasing in a one-time 3.2 percentage-point boost in the base payment rate for hospitals currently scheduled to take effect in fiscal 2018.

Scheduled reductions in Medicaid “disproportionate share” payments to hospitals that care for large numbers of people who are uninsured or covered by Medicaid would be delayed by one year to fiscal 2018, but extended for an additional year to fiscal 2025.

Q. What is the plan for CHIP?

The bill adds two years of funding for CHIP, a federal-state program that provides insurance for low-income children whose families earned too much money to qualify for Medicaid. While the health law continues CHIP authorization through 2019, funding for the program had not been extended beyond the end of September.

The length of the proposed extension was problematic for Democrats, especially in the Senate. In February, the Senate Democratic caucus signed on to legislation from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, calling for a four-year extension of the current CHIP program. A Senate amendment to extend CHIP funding for four years failed.

Q. What else is in the SGR deal?

The package, which Boehner, R-Ohio, and Pelosi, D-Calif., began negotiating in March, also includes an additional $7.2 billion for community health centers over the next two years. NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood have criticized the provision because the health center funding would be subject to the Hyde Amendment, a common legislative provision that says federal money can be used for abortions only when a pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

In a letter to Democratic colleagues before the House vote, Pelosi has said that the funding would occur “under the same terms that Members have previously supported and voted on almost every year since 1979.” In a statement, the National Association of Community Health Centers said the proposal “represents no change in current policy for Health Centers, and would not change anything about how Health Centers operate today.”

Q. How did the doctor payment formula become an issue?

Today’s problem is a result of efforts years ago to control federal spending — a 1997 deficit reduction law that set the SGR formula. For the first few years, Medicare expenditures did not exceed the target and doctors received modest pay increases. But in 2002, doctors were furious when their payments were reduced by 4.8%. Every year since, Congress has staved off the scheduled cuts. But each deferral just increased the size of the fix needed the next time.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), which advises Congress, says the SGR is “fundamentally flawed” and has called for its repeal. The SGR provides “no incentive for providers to restrain volume,” the agency said.

Q. Why haven’t lawmakers simply eliminated the formula before?

Money was the biggest problem. An earlier bipartisan, bicameral SGR overhaul plan produced jointly by three key congressional committees would cost $175 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and lawmakers could not agree on how to pay for the plan.

This time Congress took a different path. The measure both chambers approved is not fully paid for. That is a major departure from the GOP’s mantra that all legislation must be financed. Tired of the yearly SGR battle, veteran members in both chambers appeared willing to repeal the SGR on the basis that it’s a budget gimmick – the cuts are never made – and therefore financing is unnecessary.

But some senators objected. In remarks on the Senate floor, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said any repeal of the SGR “should be done in a way that should be financially sound.”

Most lawmakers felt full financing for the Medicare extenders, the CHIP extension and any increase in physician payments over the current pay schedule was needed. Those items account for about $70 billion of financing in the approximately $210 billion package.

Conservative groups urged Republicans to fully finance any SGR repeal and said they would be watching senators’ actions closely. For example, the group Heritage Action for America promised to “key vote” an amendment that the measure be fully financed. That amendment failed.

Some members of Congress seemed pleased to have this recurring debate behind them. “Stick a fork in it,” said Rep. Upton. “It’s finally done.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

MONEY Health Care

Why Young Millennials Are Turning Down Health Coverage at Work

150414_FF_MILLHEALTHCOVERAGE
Getty Images—Getty Images I don't need health insurance, boss. I've got my mom's plan.

Thanks to Obamacare, they can probably get cheaper health insurance from mom and dad.

New college grads want a job, but they can take or leave the health insurance benefits that come with it. Less than half of all eligible employees under age 26 enrolled in an employer-provided health plan in 2015, according to a new report out today from the ADP Research Institute.

But don’t worry about the rest. Under the Affordable Care Act, young adults are allowed to stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until they turn 26. And that’s probably what many are doing, says Chris Ryan, vice president of strategic advisory services at ADP. “There are lot of people who do value health coverage very much, but they want to stay on their parents’ plan as long as possible,” Ryan says.

Why Young Workers Have More Options

The provision that lets young adults keep their parents’ health insurance until age 26 has been one of the most popular parts of Obamacare. It was also one of the first provisions to go into effect. Between September 2010 and December 2011, more than 3 million adults aged 19 to 25 got private health insurance largely thanks to the ACA, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

A lot has changed since 2011. More millennials have entered the workforce, and a greater number have become eligible for health benefits. Today, 83% of employees under 26 are eligible for health insurance at work, up 8.5% from five years ago. Still, fewer millennials have actually enrolled in their employers’ plans. In 2011, almost 57% of young millennials who were eligible for employer-subsidized health coverage took it; this year, only 44% did.

One sign that many of these young adults are ditching their employer’s plans for their family’s plan: Once employees are too old to stay their parents’ plans, they’re much more likely to sign up for employer coverage. Three-quarters of eligible employees aged 26 to 39 enrolled in an employer health plan, the survey found.

Happily, after widespread concerns that young people would not sign up for health insurance, the vast majority are now covered one way or another. Nationally, 83.2% of Americans aged 18 to 25 now have health insurance, up from 76.5% in the last quarter of 2014, according to a recent Gallup poll. Today, there are 4.5 million more insured young adults who would not otherwise had coverage, according to the White House.

When Mom and Dad’s Plan Has the Edge

For millennials just starting out, however, health insurance premiums can still eat up a large part of their meager incomes. ADP found that employees earning $15,000 to $20,000 spent 9.5% of their annual income on premiums. Employees earning $45,000 to $50,000 devoted 5.8% of their income to premiums, while employees earning more than $120,000 spent just 2.3% of their income on premiums.

So even if young millennials have jobs with health benefits, the family plan is often the better deal. “Most millennials in their early 20s have entry-level salaries, so it’s attractive for our generation to get on a parent’s comprehensive plan for health and financial security,” writes Erin Hemlin, health care campaign director of Young Invincibles, a millennial research and advocacy group.

ADP found that individual premiums cost $486 a month, on average. But add two or more dependents to the plan, and premiums cost an average of $1,377 a month—which, split three or four ways, is less than an individual plan.

“There’s no question—it is usually cheaper for someone to be an additional dependent rather than pay for single coverage,” Ryan says. And then there are the tax benefits. “Because the premiums are on a pre-tax basis and parents are usually in a higher income bracket than their children, the parents are getting a better tax break, and the insurance overall is cheaper,” Ryan says.

Still, there are downsides to staying on a parent’s plan. If you don’t live near your parents, make sure you can find local doctors that are in your parents’ insurance network before you turn down health benefits at work. And consider if you want your bills and explanation of benefit statements mailed to your parents. Not sure what to do? Here’s more on how to decide— or shop for an individual plan on your own if you’re not getting coverage at work.

MONEY health

We’re Spending Much, Much More on Prescription Drugs

Americans spent nearly $374 billion on prescription drugs in 2014, thanks in part to some shockingly expensive new medicines.

TIME Healthcare

About 90% of U.S. Adults Now Have Health Insurance

The uninsured rate has fallen under Obamacare

Amost 90% of American adults now have health insurance, according to a new survey released Monday.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index shows that the uninsured rate has dropped to 11.9% for the first quarter of 2015. That’s down one percentage point from the previous quarter and down 5.2 percentage points since the end of 2013, when the expansion of coverage under President Obama’s health care reform law went into effect.

“The uninsured rate is the lowest since Gallup and Healthways began tracking it in 2008,” Gallup said. The rate of uninsured Americans rose to more than 17% by 2011, and peaked at 18% just a couple years later. It dropped significantly when the health care law was implemented.

The survey shows that while the uninsured rate has dropped among all groups, the greatest declines came for lower-income Americans and Hispanics.

MONEY Health Care

This Fast-Growing Health Plan is Great for Your Boss—But Maybe Not for You

150326_FF_POPULARHEALTHPLAN
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

High-deductible health insurance plans save employers money, a new study finds. Trouble is, when workers have to shoulder more costs, they may also skip getting medical care.

Got a high-deductible health plan? The kind that doesn’t pay most medical bills until they exceed several thousand dollars? You’re a foot soldier who’s been drafted in the war against high health costs.

Companies that switch workers into high-deductible plans can reap enormous savings, consultants will tell you—and not just by making employees pay more. Total costs paid by everybody—employer, employee and insurance company—tend to fall in the first year or rise more slowly when consumers have more at stake at the health-care checkout counter whether or not they’re making medically wise choices.

Consumers with high deductibles sometimes skip procedures, think harder about getting treatment and shop for lower prices when they do seek care.

What nobody knows is whether such plans, also sold to individuals and families through the health law’s online exchanges, will backfire. If people choose not to have important preventive care and end up needing an expensive hospital stay years later as a result, everybody is worse off.

A new study delivers cautiously optimistic results for employers and policymakers, if not for consumers paying a higher share of their own health care costs.

Researchers led by Amelia Haviland at Carnegie Mellon University found that overall savings at companies introducing high-deductible plans lasted for up to three years afterwards. If there were any cost-related time bombs caused by forgone care, at least they didn’t blow up by then.

“Three years out there consistently seems to be a reduction in total health care spending” at employers offering high-deductible plans, Haviland said in an interview. Although the study says nothing about what might happen after that, “this was interesting to us that it persists for this amount of time.”

The savings were substantial: 5% on average for employers offering high-deductible plans compared with results at companies that didn’t offer them. And that was for the whole company, whether or not all workers took the high-deductible option.

The size of the study was impressive; it covered 13 million employees and dependents at 54 big companies. All savings were from reduced spending on pharmaceuticals and doctor visits and other outpatient care. There was no sign of what often happens when high-risk patients miss preventive care: spikes in emergency-room visits and hospital admissions.

The suits in human resources call this kind of coverage a “consumer-directed” health plan. It sounds less scary than the old name for coverage with huge deductibles: catastrophic health insurance.

But having consumers direct their own care also requires making sure they know enough to make smart choices like getting vaccines, but skipping dubious procedures like an expensive MRI scan at the first sign of back pain.

Not all employers are doing a terrific job. Most high-deductible plan members surveyed in a recent California study had no idea that preventive screenings, office visits and other important care required little or no out-of-pocket payment. One in five said they had avoided preventive care because of the cost.

“This evidence of persistent reductions in spending places even greater importance on developing evidence on how they are achieved,” Kate Bundorf, a Stanford health economist not involved in the study, said of consumer-directed plans. “Are consumers foregoing preventive care? Are they less adherent to [effective] medicine? Or are they reducing their use of low-value office visits and corresponding drugs or substituting to cheaper yet similarly effective prescribed drugs?”

Employers and consultants are trying to educate people about avoiding needless procedures and finding quality caregivers at better prices.

That might explain why the companies offering high-deductible plans saw such significant savings even though not all workers signed up, Haviland said. Even employees with traditional, lower-deductible plans may be using the shopping tools.

The study doesn’t close the book on consumer-directed plans.

“What happens five years or ten years down the line when people develop more consequences of reducing high-value, necessary care?” she asked. Nobody knows.

And the study doesn’t address a side effect of high-deductibles that doctors can’t treat: pocketbook trauma. Consumer-directed plans, often paired with tax-favored health savings accounts, can require families to pay $5,000 or more per year in out-of-pocket costs.

Three people out of five with low incomes and half of those with moderate incomes told the Commonwealth Fund last year their deductibles are hard to afford. Many households simply lack the resources to make out-of-pocket health costs, shows a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Foundation.)

As in all battles, the front-line infantry often makes the biggest sacrifice.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

MONEY Health Care

Who Covers the Costs of Preventive Surgery Like Angelina Jolie’s

Actress Angelina Jolie
Matt Sayles—Invision/AP

Faced with a genetic predisposition to cancer, Angelina Jolie opted for a preventive surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes. But can other women afford to do the same?

This week, actress and director Angelina Jolie took to the New York Times to announce a big decision: She had her ovaries and fallopian tubes surgically removed, a preventive measure meant to decrease her risk of ovarian and breast cancer. This surgery followed her preventive double mastectomy in 2013.

After losing her mother, grandmother, and aunt to cancer, Jolie underwent genetic testing and learned that she had a mutation in one of her BRCA genes, a tumor-suppressor gene. That means she too has an increased risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

“I feel feminine, and grounded in the choices I am making for myself and my family,” Jolie wrote. “I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer.'”

The good news: If you share Jolie’s predisposition to cancer, the same treatment options are probably available to you. Most insurers will cover preventive surgery for women with a BRCA mutation, says Lisa Schlager, vice president for community affairs and public policy at Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE), a nonprofit organization devoted to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. (Generally, Medicare and Medicaid aren’t as generous, Schlager says.)

That’s been true for a long time—a 2001 study found that 97% of preventive surgeries for women with BRCA mutations were fully covered by insurance (except for deductibles and copays).

The surgery can be costly. According to HealthSparq, a health care costs transparency firm, the average national cost for the surgical removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes is $12,381.

That’s the average insurer-negotiated price, based on actual claims data from 67 health plans. In other words, that’s the average price insurers have agreed to pay hospitals and health providers for the procedure. You can expect to pay a smaller portion of that cost, depending on your health plan’s deductible, co-pays and co-insurance.

Today, the average deductible for Americans with single, employer-subsidized health coverage is $1,217, which means most need to pay more than a grand out-of-pocket before insurance begins to cover the bulk of their costs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“It really depends on your insurance and your deductible,” Schlager says. “Some people have a very high deductible, and we’re referring them to services that provide financial assistance.”

Prices can also vary significantly by region. According to HealthSparq, the average cost of the procedure is $8,693 in Maryland, but $20,763 in San Francisco, a $12,070 price gap.

Market Average Cost
San Francisco – San Jose CA $20,763.06
San Diego CA $16,508.06
Miami – Fort Lauderdale FL $16,441.37
LA – Orange County CA $16,378.38
Houston TX $14,687.49
Austin – San Antonio TX $13,617.29
New York City – White Plains NY $13,591.84
Dallas – Fort Worth TX $13,404.92
New Orleans LA $12,049.43
Cinncinati – Dayton OH $11,987.74
Columbus OH $11,335.80
Albany NY $9,559.04
Washington DC – Arlington VA $8,747.73
Maryland $8,692.77
AVERAGE NATIONAL $12,380.55
PRICE GAP $12,070.29

But generally, insurers will cover the surgery. After all, “the surgeries are less expensive to the private insurers than if you were to get cancer,” Schlager says.

How do you know if you’re at risk? According to guidelines from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, you should get screened for genetic abnormalities if any of your family members develop ovarian or fallopian tube cancer, breast cancer in both breasts, breast and ovarian cancer, breast cancer before age 50, male breast cancer, or other signs of hereditary breast-ovarian cancer syndrome. You should also get tested if more than one blood relative on the same side of your family has breast, ovarian, fallopian tube, prostate, pancreatic, or melanoma cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which helps implement the Affordable Care Act, made similar recommendations.

Schlager says the cost of genetic testing has “dropped substantially” in recent years, to between $1,500 and $4,000. Most insurers will cover genetic testing if you meet the national guidelines, but if your insurer refuses, some labs have financial assistance programs to limit your out-of-pocket cost to about $100, Schlager says.

Then you should meet with a genetic counselor. The Affordable Care Act mandates that health insurers cover genetic counseling with no cost-sharing if you have an increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer. That is to say, genetic counseling is a women’s preventive service that should be free to you, like birth control.

Jolie was quick to note that her choice isn’t the answer for everyone. “A positive BRCA test does not mean a leap to surgery,” Jolie wrote. “I have spoken to many doctors, surgeons and naturopaths. There are other options.”

A genetic counselor should help you understand the implications of preventive surgery and consider other less invasive—but less effective—measures, like increased cancer screenings. “It’s a very personal decision, and every family is different,” Schlager says. “Your first step is to talk to your doctor.”

MONEY Taxes

Why Obamacare Has Made Tax Filing an Even Bigger Headache This Year

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This is the first year that health reform crops up on your tax return. And a new study finds that many Americans who got help with health insurance premiums in 2014 now owe the IRS money.

This tax season, for the first time since the health law passed five years ago, consumers are facing its financial consequences. Whether they owe a penalty for not having health insurance or have to reconcile how much they got in premium tax credits against their incomes, many people have to contend with new tax forms and calculations. Experts say the worst may be yet to come.

When Christa Avampato, 39, bought a silver plan on the New York health insurance exchange last year, she was surprised and pleased to learn that she qualified for a $177 premium tax credit that is available to people with incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level. The tax credit, which was sent directly to her insurer every month, reduced the monthly payment for her $400 plan to $223.

A big check from a client at the end of last year pushed the self-employed consultant and content creator’s income higher than she had estimated. When she filed her income taxes earlier this month she got the bad news: She must repay $750 of the tax credit she’d received.

Avampato paid the bill out of her savings. Since her higher income meant she also owed more money on her federal and state income taxes, repaying the tax credit was “just rubbing salt in the wound,” Avampato says. But she’s not complaining. The tax credit made her coverage much more affordable. Going forward, she says she’ll just keep in mind that repayment is a possibility.

It’s hard to hit the income estimate on the nose, and changes in family status can also throw off the annual household income estimate on which the premium tax credit amount is based.

Like Avampato, half of people who received premium tax credits would have to repay some portion of the amount, according to estimates by The Kaiser Family Foundation. Forty-five percent would get a refund, according to the KFF analysis. The average repayment and the average refund would both be a little under $800. (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Tax preparer H&R Block has also looked at the issue. It reported that 52% of people who enrolled in coverage on the exchanges had to repay an average of $530 in premium tax credits, according to an analysis of the first six weeks of returns filed through tax preparer. About a third of marketplace enrollees got a tax credit refund of $365 on average, according to H&R Block.

The amount that people have to repay is capped based on their income. Still, someone earning 200% of the poverty level ($22,980) could owe several hundred dollars, says Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation. People whose income tops 400% of poverty ($45,960 for an individual) have to pay the entire premium tax credit back.

Experts say the message for taxpayers is clear: if your income or family status changes, go back to the marketplace now and as necessary throughout the year to adjust them so you can minimize repayment issues when your 2015 taxes are due.

Many people are learning about what the health law requires and how it affects them for the first time when they come in to file their taxes, says Tara Straw, a health policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. For the past 10 years, Straw has managed a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site in the District of Columbia as part of an Internal Revenue Service program that provides free tax preparation services for lower income people.

Some of the recently initiated owe a penalty for not having health insurance. For 2014, the penalty is the greater of $95 or 1% of income. The H&R Block analysis found that the average penalty people paid for not having insurance was $172. Consumers who learn they owe a penalty when they file their 2014 taxes can qualify for a special enrollment period to buy 2015 coverage if they haven’t already done so. That would protect them against a penalty on their next return.

People may be able to avoid the penalty by qualifying for an exemption. Tax preparers rely on software to help them complete people’s returns, including the forms used to reconcile premium tax credits and pay the penalty for not having insurance or apply for an exemption from the requirement. For the most part, the software is up to the task, Straw says, but it comes up short with some of the more complicated calculations.

Case in point: applying for the exemption from the health insurance requirement because coverage is unaffordable. Under the health law, if the minimum amount people would have to pay for employer coverage or a bronze level health plan is more than 8% of household income they don’t have to buy insurance. That situation is likely to be one of the most common reasons for claiming an exemption.

But to figure out whether someone qualifies, the software would have to incorporate details such as the cost of the second lowest cost silver plan (to calculate how much someone could receive in premium tax credits) and the lowest cost bronze plan in someone’s area. The software can’t do that, so tax preparers must complete the information by hand.

“That one in particular has been vexing,” says Straw.

The gnarliest filing challenges may yet come from people with complicated situations, such as those who had errors in the IRS form 1095A that reported how much they received in premium tax credits, experts say.

Take the example of a couple with a 20-year-old son living at home who bought a family policy on the exchange. If midway through the year the son gets a job and is no longer his parents’ dependent, the family’s premium tax credit calculation will be off. The family needs to work together to figure out the optimal way to divide the credit already received between the two tax returns. The goal is to maximize the benefit to the family and minimize any tax credit repayment they may face.

“A lot of tax software is just not designed for that kind of trial and error,” says Straw.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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