Health Care Reform: What's in It for Patients?

Healthcare costs

On the same day that insurance companies, hospitals, doctors' groups and other so-called stakeholders in the United States health care system met with President Obama to discuss reforms, 64-year-old Patty Keen of Delaware was adjusting her schedule to attend the rehearsal for her grandson's confirmation.

Some would argue that Keen, too, is a stakeholder in the U.S. health care system. Keen formerly enjoyed a career in real estate. But her battle with ovarian cancer, which began in 2006, coincided with the beginnings of the real estate slowdown -- and was complicated by her not being able to get health insurance through her employer.

Even when she was healthy, Keen had paid $450 per month to keep her private health insurance. When she fell ill, the costs of chemotherapy and prescription co-pays of up to $300 per month for each medication she needed drove her into further financial trouble. For a while, she could no longer work. In 2008, she declared bankruptcy and was forced to take a second job in order to obtain health insurance she could afford.

Today, Keen said, she considers herself an ovarian cancer survivor. But her battle on two fronts -- one against the deadly illness, the other against escalating health care costs -- left her without the home she had worked her life to buy and with bad credit.

"I basically lost everything I had to bankruptcy, because of all that had happened to me," she said. "When I couldn't work, I really couldn't pay [my insurance] -- that's what put me behind."

On the national scale, stories like Keen's are just one symptom of a health care system in crisis. But while the country's health care leaders pledged Monday to reduce the annual growth of health spending by 1.5 percentage points -- which they say will save $2 trillion in 10 years -- some health policy experts say that it is unlikely that Americans will see any of this money returning to their own pocketbooks, despite the crippling health care costs that some face.

The skepticism comes amid high hopes by others that consumers could see some relief within the next few years from crushing medical costs that, for some, have led to personal bankruptcy and other grim financial consequences.

Karen Davis, president of the health care foundation the Commonwealth Fund, said the public would likely share the trillions of dollars saved by the year 2019.

Will Health Care Savings Help Patients' Pockets?

"Administration officials calculate that this 1.5 percentage point reduction will produce an average savings of $2,500 for a family of four in the fifth year," Davis said. "This is clearly a step in the right direction."

But Ted Marmor, professor of Public Policy and Management at the Yale School of Management, called such expectations "wishful thinking."

"I think that if you were a betting person, you'd lose a lot on that bet," Marmor said. "This is utterly unrealistic."

Part of the problem, Marmor said, is that even with the 1.5 percent reduction, health costs will still be growing at a projected rate of 4.7 percent per year.

Even then, he added, the steps that the stakeholders would have to take to achieve even this reduction would require a significant deviation from the status quo.

"All of [the changes] are much harder to do than is being suggested here," Marmor said. "Customary practice is very hard to change."

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