Insurance companies are no longer waiving cost-sharing for COVID hospitalizations. Seems fair to me.

By Melissa Riba, director of research and evaluation, Center for Health and Research Transformation (CHRT)

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, insurers stopped charging their members for COVID-related hospitalizations. 

Partly, that was just common sense. Charging copays and deductibles in the middle of a global pandemic–when people were sick and worried and losing their jobs–would have discouraged people from seeking care. 

But insurers were also in a really good financial position to waive those fees. 

People were continuing to pay their premiums while delaying routine care, skipping wellness visits, postponing preventive screenings, and generally toughing it out until the coast was clear. All of that saved insurers money. 

Now, consumers seem surprised that insurance companies are planning to reinstate copays and deductibles during a significant COVID-19 surge. I’m not entirely sure why that’s surprising. 

As research and evaluation director at the Michigan-based Center for Health and Research Transformation (CHRT), I have seen the data and heard the stories. And it shows that over 90 percent of the folks who are really sick–the ones who are crowding hospital ICUs and EDs–are unvaccinated. And that’s a situation that’s easily remedied. 

Vaccines are safe, free, and plentiful. Plus they’re highly effective at protecting us from COVID-19. 

Sure, there have been breakthrough infections among the vaccinated. But the evidence demonstrates that people who are vaccinated have less severe symptoms, and are less likely to end up in the hospital costing insurers a ton of money. 

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study shows that in Michigan, only 1.6 percent of new COVID infections are occurring among the fully vaccinated. And even among those relatively rare cases, incidence of serious illness or hospitalization is practically zero (.01 percent to be precise). 

In the U.S., health insurance isn’t a human right; it’s a market commodity. 

Whether we believe that’s right or wrong, our health care system is built on a very basic capitalist principle–provide a good or service and try to make money doing it. 

Unvaccinated COVID-19 hospitalizations cost the U.S. health system $2.3 billion in June and July 2021. And if costs exceed what insurers anticipated, or result in excessive uncompensated care for hospitals, who do you think will make up for it? We all will:  Through higher premiums and cost sharing requirements; through increased hospital charges. Vaccines can save money–for insurers, for individuals, and for society. It’s as simple as that. 

Waiving copays and deductibles at the start of the pandemic was a way for insurers to encourage members to take care of themselves and others by seeking necessary care. Reinstituting copays and deductibles is a way for insurers to encourage members to take care of themselves and others by getting vaccinated. 

We’ve already done a lot to incentivize people to get vaccinated. 

There are free donuts, cash payouts, scholarship lotteries, free transportation. 

We’re now starting to see vaccination requirements at work and play. I just uploaded a photo of my own vaccination card, and my daughter (who is also vaccinated) tells me that you can’t see Harry Styles at Little Caesars Arena in September unless you can show you’re vaccinated (for those of you with a Harry fan in your household, you know this is a really big deal).

Penalties are the logical next step. We’ve tried the ‘carrot’; now it’s time for the ‘stick’ to encourage (some might say ‘force’) individuals to get vaccinated. Health insurers might not deny coverage, but they can definitely make it more expensive to make the choice to remain unvaccinated. That’s health insurance 101.

This blog post originally appeared in The Detroit News on September 3, 2021 (Op-ed: Insurers are driving up the price of staying unvaccinated)

Ten years in, Riba shares the legacy and future of CHRT’s Cover Michigan Survey

Melissa Riba, Research and Evaluation Director, Center for Health and Research Transformation (CHRT)

Recently, our research and evaluation team sat down for a 2020 work-planning meeting, and we asked ourselves, “what did we want to accomplish in 2020?” As our conversation focused on the year ahead, it also led me to think about the last ten years of Cover Michigan – the issues and subjects we explored, and the impact that the survey has had.

The initial concept for Cover Michigan was to conduct a consumer survey that regularly explored health, health insurance, and health care access trends across Michigan.

We developed the concept in 2009 to better understand the likely impact of the Affordable Care Act on the state of Michigan and the people who live here. Over the last decade the survey has revealed important trends about health status, health care coverage, and access to health care across populations.

Survey findings

Some of the topics we asked people about included insurance churning and access, satisfaction with health coverage, and wellness and prevention programs – and we learned a lot.

  • In 2013, we found that Michigan’s mental health care system faced significant capacity challenges.
  • In 2015 we learned that cost, not physician choice, was the most important factor for consumers selecting a health plan. And we also learned that race and economic status were strong predictors of whether people had a flu vaccination, and that Michigan had opportunities to improve vaccination rates.
  • In 2016 we found that a substantial share of Michiganders reported having participated in wellness programs – though they perceived limited benefit from those programs – and that those who participated in mental health and stress relief programs reported the greatest perceived benefits.

And of course, it’s always gratifying when a Cover Michigan Survey brief is part of a story in the media, whether it’s regional coverage of our mental health care access survey brief in Crains Detroit or national print stories mentioning our Insurance churning survey findings in The Week or The New Republic.

This partial list of the useful information that has developed from the Cover Michigan survey really just scratches the surface of what we’ve learned and shared at CHRT over the last decade.

Going forward

So the Cover Michigan Survey will continue, and expand.

In the next decade, we will maintain our emphasis on learning about the health of people and communities, and we will continue tracking trends in coverage and access to care.

But we will also increase our focus on the social determinants of health; use new platforms to disseminate what we learn through the survey; and work to expand statewide partnerships that help us provide local and regional health data to inform policy decisions that positively impact the health of people in communities all across Michigan.