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Health care in America: desperate measures

As health care costs continue to rise, some Americans are taking desperate measures to pay off medical bills and gain access to treatment. Tactics have gone far beyond payday loans and borrowing from family and friends. They now include online pleas for strangers to send cash, selling off family heirlooms and, for some who urgently need care, even petty crime.

But wait – what does crime have to do with health care? Just ask Richard James Verrone, who demanded $1 from a bank teller so he could be arrested and sent to jail, where his medical needs would be covered.1 Or Frank Morrocco, who blatantly shoplifted $23 worth of items he didn’t need so he could get leukemia treatments behind bars.2 Or Florida officials, who’ve seen pregnant women commit crimes just to get medical care for their babies in jail.3

Selling the wedding china

Other individuals with access to care are struggling too – but, for them, the problem is paying post-treatment medical bills. A quick Internet search turned up dozens of articles about people who are strapped by co-payments, deductibles and out-of-pocket health care costs. Josh Charles of Vancouver, Wash. sold his belongings at garage sales and online to pay for his wife’s cancer treatments.4 And Dwayne and Kelly Daves of Lake Wylie, S.C. auctioned off everything from their bedroom set to their wedding china to cover medical expenses stemming from their daughter’s congenital birth defect.5

One modern strategy for getting help with medical costs is crowdfunding, or using the Internet to reach out to family, friends and even strangers for contributions. According to USA Today, when Matthew Foutz co-founded The Human Tribe – a crowdfunding site that helps people raise money to pay for medical and other crisis-driven expenses – he never expected to use its services. Yet when his daughter Mia was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 5, Foutz used crowdfunding, raising $11,520 over two years.6

“She's going to need tons of rehab, and insurance only goes so far,” Foutz told the newspaper. “In this day and age, there's no recourse for families that are going through this, because insurance companies raise your rates and there's nothing you can do about it."

Health care costs are the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy

Examples like these are not as extreme as you might think. Medical expenses are the foe of families throughout the nation, and an analysis of data from sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and the federal court system revealed that bankruptcies resulting from unpaid medical bills will affect nearly 2 million people this year. In fact, health care costs are the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy filings.7

What’s more, the study found that 15 million Americans will empty their savings accounts in 2013 to cover medical bills, while another 10 million won’t have the money needed to pay for rent, food or utilities because of those bills.

Voluntary insurance: An affordable solution

Many employers help workers cope with spiraling medical costs by adding an array of voluntary health insurance policies to their benefits options. This allows employees to decide what types of coverage they need and can afford. The 2013 Aflac WorkForces Report revealed that 60 percent of employees would be interested in purchasing voluntary benefits if they were available through their companies.8

Once a company decides to add voluntary benefits to its roster of health insurance choices, where does it start?

One strategy is surveying employees to identify their most-desired voluntary options and then offering a selection of the plans generating the most interest. Overwhelming employees with too many choices at once can be just as ineffective as not providing enough options to choose from. Most employers will find workers are interested in these types of voluntary coverage:

  • Disability insurance, which helps protect a worker’s most valuable asset: the ability to earn a living. Disability benefits pay a portion of an employee’s income while he or she is disabled and unable to work.
  • Life insurance, which is a high-demand benefit, especially in shaky financial times. It’s most appealing to employees who want to protect their families’ lifestyles if the worst should happen. Benefits can be used to help pay immediate needs such as funeral expenses, medical costs and current bills and debts. They can also be used to help pay survivors’ future needs, including ongoing financial obligations, education costs and retirement expenses.
  • Dental coverage, which is a high-value proposition for several reasons: It’s often inexpensive, dental health is closely tied to overall health, and many companies are discontinuing employer-paid dental coverage. Supplemental dental plans can help pay for cleanings, checkups, filling cavities, X-rays, sealants, emergency care and more.
  • Accident insurance, which helps policyholders stay ahead of the out-of-pocket expenses that add up quickly after an unexpected health event, such as a broken bone, dislocated joint or laceration. Benefits can be used to help pay for emergency treatment, hospital stays and medical exams, as well as treatment-related transportation and lodging needs.
  • Critical care and recovery insurance, which helps pay for treatment related to serious, life-altering events such as heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure and third-degree burns.

By adding voluntary options to their benefits plans, employers offer workers a robust variety of health insurance choices at no direct cost to their companies’ bottom lines. An added bonus? Employers can be relatively confident their workforces aren’t using brainstorming sessions to identify creative ways to pay health care expenses.

Sources

1 The Daily Beast, “Man robs bank of one dollar,” accessed Oct. 2, 2013 - http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2011/06/21/man-robs-bank-for-one-dollar.html
2 The Buffalo News, “Ex-convict says he got himself arrested to get prison health care,” accessed Oct. 2, 2013 - http://www.buffalonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll
3 West Orlando News, “Pregnant women commit crimes for medical treatment in jail, “ accessed Oct. 2, 2013 - http://westorlandonews.com/2009/06/24/pregnant-women-commit-crimes-for-medical-care-in-jail/
4 KATU.com, “Family sells belongings to pay for care during cancer fight,” accessed Oct. 2, 2013 - http://www.katu.com/news/local/Family-sells-belongings-to-pay-for-bills-during-cancer-fight-182691431.html
5 WCNC.com, “Lake Wylie family auctions off belongings to pay medical bills,” accessed Oct. 2, 2013, - http://www.wcnc.com/news/health/Lake-Wylie-family-auctions-off-belongings-to-pay-medical-bills-152073905.html
6 USA Today, “ ‘Crowdfunding’ sites pay medical bills, raise hope,” accessed Oct. 2, 2013 - http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/01/11/crowdfunding-medical-expenses-fundraising/1786039/
7 NerdWallet Health, “NerdWallet Health Estimates 56 Million Americans Under 65 Will Struggle with Medical Bills in 2013,” http://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/health/2013/06/19/nerdwallet-health-study-estimates-56-million-americans-65-struggle-medical-bills-2013/ – accessed Oct. 3, 2013
8 The Aflac WorkForces Report, www.aflacworkforcesreport.com – accessed July 12, 2013