The past year has shown that our health care system needs serious reform. It’s no secret that for many Americans, the cost of health care is unaffordable. Shady practices like surprise billing make …
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The past year has shown that our health care system needs serious reform. It’s no secret that for many Americans, the cost of health care is unaffordable. Shady practices like surprise billing make it even more difficult for Americans to pay for the cost of treatment. Despite these well-known cracks in our health care system and being in the midst of a global pandemic, UnitedHealthcare recently decided to implement a policy to stop paying for emergency room visits that it deemed non-urgent.
While UnitedHealthcare decided to delay implementation of this policy until after the pandemic due to public backlash, the impact – even after the pandemic – would be severe, forcing patients to self-diagnose to determine if their illness is serious enough to seek emergency care and warrant the risk of a large bill from the hospital. Surprise billing has long been a problem for patients who seek medical care only to be saddled with an enormous and unexpected bill after receiving potentially life-saving treatment – including $64,000 air ambulance bill for a Colorado family that needed their 4-week old transported for emergency surgery. Making decisions about health care in an emergency is already a difficult, if not impossible prospect. UnitedHealthcare’s proposed policy is not only unethical but also a public safety hazard. Now more than ever, we must ensure Americans feel that they can seek emergency medical care when they need it without having to worry about surprise medical bills.
Thankfully, UnitedHealthcare has decided to delay the implementation of this harmful policy, but that doesn’t change the fact that Americans are hurting because of rising out-of-pocket costs of health care in the United States. Even before the pandemic devastated millions of families across the nation, more than half of Americans with employer-sponsored health insurance delayed or postponed treatment for themselves or a family member because of the cost.
Despite many being fortunate enough to have employer-provided health insurance, the cost of emergency treatment is still unaffordable to many. When 71 percent of ambulance providers don’t take a patient’s insurance, and the average cost of an ambulance fee is $450 even after insurance coverage, many Americans who need emergency services are forced to borrow money from family members or, in worst-case scenarios, predatory lenders.
In America, the leading cause for bankruptcy is medical debt. Every year, 530,000 families turn to bankruptcy because of the unbearable weight of medical bills. UnitedHealthcare has chosen an ill-advised policy that has the potential to leave many more exposed to crushing and unexpected medical bills.
These issues disproportionately affect communities of color due to entrenched discrimination and structural inequalities in the American health care system. Communities of color have been subjected to unequal treatment in nearly every aspect of their lives since this nation’s inception. Economic inequality between Black and white families is a long-standing issue that has, in turn, impacted many other aspects of life for communities of color. Black families, on average, have a fraction of the wealth of white families, leaving them with a lack of financial security that results in far fewer opportunities for upward mobility. Because of economic inequity, communities of color are more likely to live in poverty, which in turn makes them more likely to live in areas with dangerous pollution levels, food deserts, and areas with high rates of community violence that threaten Black Americans and makes access to health care an extremely important component of one’s livelihood, as it is for any American.
Despite this structural racism that results in higher rates of health complications for communities of color, lack of access to quality health care and discriminatory practices in American medicine leads to higher crude mortality rates for Black patients than white patients. Moreover, discrimination that regularly impacts communities of color when attempting to access health care includes excessive wait times, rejected hospital admission, denied access to services, underestimation of symptom severity, limited resources, and more.
The least that we as consumers should be able to expect from insurers is the ability to receive treatment without fear that retroactively that care won’t be covered. It’s time that we stand up to unethical practices like these and demand better of those who can pass policy to make health care affordable and equitable for all.
Andy Kerr is a former State Representative and State Senator from Lakewood. He is currently a Jefferson County Commissioner in District 2.
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