Oregon Public Broadcasting

Oregonians Spent More Than Needed On Health Prodcedures Last Year

Oregonians could have saved 28 percent on their health procedures last year if they’d shopped for the best price, according to a new study from the Portland cost transparency company HealthSparq.

People with health insurance don’t usually shop the best cost on procedures like an MRI or hip replacement.

But over the last five years, insurance deductions have increased from around $300 a year to $3,000 a year. HealthSparq CEO Scott Decker said that increase is pushing people to shop more.

He estimates 11 percent of unnecessary spending in overall health care costs in Oregon could be eliminated by shopping.

“You can find even with your insurance, three, four or five times variation in price. So we need to be conscious consumers of health care, just like we are of anything else we shop for,” Decker said.

The HealthSparq study found patients could save 5 percent by shopping for tests and surgical procedures; 1 percent by shopping for medications; and 5 percent by using telehealth — that is, contacting a doctor over a video call service like Skype.

Such savings would amount to about $90 per person, per month.

The HealthSparq report used data from 237,000 people, who accounted for more than 500,000 cost estimates during 2015.

HealthSparq's shopping applications is embedded in 70 health plans across the U.S. and allows comparison shopping within network.

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Oregon Adopts Federal Opioid Prescribing Standards

Oregon has adopted new federal standards for the prescribing of opioids.

More people die from drug overdoses every year in Oregon than in car crashes.  And 43 percent of those overdose deaths are associated with opioids prescribed by a doctor.

State epidemiologist Dr. Katrina Hedberg said doctors and the public need to be educated on using fewer opioids, for shorter periods of time.

“It is not that we want people to be in pain. It is that we have one tool and there need to be a variety of tools that are used to address chronic pain."

She said patients need to look to tools like acupuncture, exercise, and learn to function with low levels of pain.

The state task force on opioids will continue to meet into the summer to consider other issues, like how to deal with pain from dental work.

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Oregon Hospitals To Provide Costs For Procedures

Oregon hospitals have joined together to say they’ll provide patients with an estimate for services within three business days.

Getting a hospital estimate may not seem like a big deal. But hospital prices are notoriously hard to pin down, and they vary widely.

For example, a recent study on hip replacements in Oregon found prices 20 times higher in one hospital than another.

Felicia Hagins with Service Employees International Union called the hospital estimate a welcome idea, but not a fix. “Since most Oregonians, 95 percent of us have insurance, oftentimes, we don’t actually get to choose which hospital we go to," she said.

That means you can’t comparison shop.

Other problems are that to get an estimate, the procedure has to be scheduled — and that isn't always possible, as when surgery is needed after a car crash. Also, the five percent of Oregonians who don’t have insurance probably can’t afford to get a procedure done, even if they’re told how much it would cost.

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Oregon Health Insurance Cheaper Than National Average, For Now

Health insurance premiums in Oregon are lower than the national average, according to new numbers from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — but that may not last.

Some Oregonians were shocked last week when health insurance companies like Moda and Providence asked for rate increases of about 30 percent for next year for the individual marketplace.

But Kathy Hempstead with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the companies are just catching-up with national pricing.

“Even though you might have felt like you had sort of a lot of price increase between 2015 and 2016, the Oregon market is still kind of under priced, compared to the national market,” she said.

The Oregon Consumer Department will analyze the proposed new rates over the next two months, to make sure they’re sustainable.

About 70 percent of Oregonians who don’t get insurance through their jobs are eligible for tax credits to help reduce the cost.

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OHSU Scientists Seek Older Women For Heart Disease Study

Scientists at the Knight Cancer Institute are looking for 10,000-15,000 older women from Oregon and Southwest Washington for a study on heart disease and blood cancer.

Over the last few years, it’s become clear that as people age, they accumulate mutations in their blood. It’s not surprising perhaps that those mutations can cause blood cancers. But what scientists are surprised by, is that those mutations look like they can also cause heart disease.

Assistant Professor of Medicine Kim-Hien Dao said now the two diseases appear to be linked, they want to know whether blood cancer drugs might benefit heart disease patients as well, “So we’re looking for women over 65 years without a history of invasive cancer. And they’re willing to provide their health history and provide a blood sample every one to two years.”

The study, which is also being conducted by Maros Ferencik at OHSU, is currently limited to women because it requires a special test for the presence of two X chromosomes. That enhances the detection of blood mutations. Scientists hope to identify a high risk population carrying these mutations and follow the group over time.

Heart disease is the nation’s leading cause of death among women — it’s responsible for about one in every three deaths.

Heart disease in women is often less recognized as compared to heart disease in men and is also often under treated. There are still genetic and lifestyle risk factors that scientists and doctors have not fully characterized.

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Traces Of Pain Medications Found In Oregon's Oysters

A new study led by Portland State University finds that oysters in Coos and Netarts bays contain a cocktail of potentially harmful chemicals. But the state says it’s seen much of the data before and a health advisory is unnecessary. 

The Oregon Health Authority says the state knew about PCBs, mercury and pesticides in seafood. But what is new are all the pharmaceuticals, like pain relievers, antibiotics and antihistamines.

The new findings caused the state to issue an advisory saying how many oysters you’d have to eat to get one dose of each pharmaceutical.

OHA spokesman David Farrer said for the pain reliever Naproxen, it’s 160,000 pounds of oysters.

“We hope that that conveys it is a very low risk,” Farrer says.

The state did issue a health advisory for soft-shell clams last year. Scientists say the chemicals enter the bays via groundwater runoff and wastewater discharged into rivers.

Calls and emails to the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association were not immediately returned.

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Health Insurance Spikes in 2017 May Mean More Competition

In the small universe that is health insurance, 2017 may turn out to be pretty nice for the men and women who predict how much insurers have to pay out in claims.

“Actuaries across the country will be able to sleep better at night for 2017,” John Bertko, chief actuary for Covered California, said.

Bertko says after three years actuaries finally have the information to more accurately forecast what they need to make a profit. Better data is just one signal that premiums on the Obamacare exchanges will likely go up more than this year. More sick people than expected and exploding drug prices are two other important signs.

Virginia, one of the earliest states to publicly report proposed increases, has posted that carriers are looking for hikes from 9 to 37 percent. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt said another factor is that companies are losing the key federal subsidy called ‘reinsurance’ that helps cover costs for the most expensive consumers.

“The reinsurance money has allowed premiums this year to be about 5% lower than they would have been if that subsidy didn’t exist,” he said. 

Higher premiums will certainly mean more tax dollars to help cover the cost of subsidizing coverage.

But MIT economist Jonathan Gruber said individual consumers might not get whacked as much as you’d think.

Gruber says four out of ten people are shopping for the best deals.

“What’s exciting is people are paying attention,” he said

“Competition is working. We took a market that was disorganized, people had no idea what they were buying, or they were stuck with that product for many years. And they are taking it seriously.”

So many people switching plans puts pressure on the insurers.

Bertko said insurers – at least in the most competitive places – are fighting for market share.

“Once a year we play musical chairs to get down to the lowest or second lowest cost plan in the region. And the plans are all incredibly aware of that,” he said.

Bertko said the stakes can be high.

If an insurer ends up with one of the most competitively priced plans, they stand to attract some of those people who this year will likely be out there shopping due to the premium spikes.

That, said Bertko, is what you call an opportunity.

Copyright (C) 2016 American Public Media Group

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