“Hello, this is Hannah. How can I help you today?”
For the last 13 years, I have greeted each caller to the Health Care For All HelpLine this way. Although every call starts similarly, what’s never the same is the story on the other end. Take for example one morning last week.
First, I spoke with a new caller who recently turned 65 and had subsidized coverage through the Health Connector. She was aware that she had to cancel her current coverage in order to move to Medicare, but she still needed help closing it out, understanding who to talk to about her supplemental Medicare needs, and ensuring her medications would remain affordable to her. The next call was from the father of a child with autism. He had a good job that offered decent health insurance, but it did not cover the additional behavioral health services his child needed. Because of this, they had many out-of-pocket expenses, and we discussed the option of applying for MassHealth as supplemental insurance for his son to help with these costs. Lastly, I spoke with a man experiencing a transition in his health insurance who needed to cover the costs of his chemotherapy.
I work with a dedicated team of counselors with over 40 years of combined experience — and together we field around 20,000 calls a year, half of them in Spanish and Portuguese. We get calls from across the state, and people are referred to us from legislative offices, community health centers and hospitals, MassHealth and the Health Connector, Planned Parenthood, and countless other community organizations, as well as word of mouth.
Two underlying themes unite many of our callers: The health care system is extremely complicated to navigate and health care is becoming exponentially more expensive.
For those with health insurance through their jobs, they have someone to answer questions and help resolve issues. For people who are on public and subsidized health care programs or buy individual insurance plans, there is greater support needed to sort through options and understand their coverage. States like Maryland, which has a similar size population, invests six times what Massachusetts spends on consumer assistance programs. At the recent Health Policy Commission Cost Trends hearing, we saw data from the Center for Health Information and Analysis that showed overall health care costs for the state increased by 3.1 percent. However, consumers’ out-of-pocket costs increased by 5.6 percent and premiums increased as well.
My colleagues and I can enroll people in health care coverage. We can help them navigate changes in their health care plans and better understand their coverage. However, we do not have the capacity to help everyone who needs our support or the ability to bring down health care costs for consumers. Massachusetts has always been a national leader in health care. I am confident that, if the will is there, state policy makers, industry leaders, and consumer advocates can work together to find additional funding to protect individuals from bearing the brunt of rising health care costs.
Hannah Frigand is director of education and enrollment services at Health Care For All.