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How Your Health Insurance Can Save Your Life

The Sacramento Bee recently ran the following opinion piece of mine below. A couple of additional comments not published follow. Enjoy. 


Viewpoints: Choice of health plan can be a lifesaver

It’s that time of year when most of us pick a health insurance plan based simply on cost. It’s a belief that is often perpetuated by friends, family, and advice dispensed by many articles in magazines and newspapers. As a practicing primary care doctor, I can tell you that the advice is frankly wrong.

Health insurance isn’t a commodity like auto insurance. It’s not just about the price. They aren’t all equally good at keeping you healthy and well. The recent annual report by the National Committee of Quality Assurance, which has been evaluating health plans for twenty years, continues to report tangible differences among health insurance plans across the country as well as in California.

In a ranking of 227 HMO plans nationwide in important areas like immunization rates for children, appropriate use of antibiotics, blood pressure and cholesterol control, cancer screening in adults for breast cancer, cervical cancer, and colon cancer, only two of nine California HMO health insurance plans ranked in the top 15 percent. The remaining seven were in the bottom half. If all health plans across the country performed at the level of the top 10 percent, 186,000 Americans would be alive today. They would have consistently and routinely received the preventive care and medical interventions that have proven to save lives.

Naturally, it is hard to believe that your choice of a health insurance plan might actually save your life. You often pick your insurance based not only on price, but also if your doctor is in the plan. As a patient, high quality care means your doctor sees you quickly when you are ill, he is always willing to listen and explain, and the fact that he actually knows you as an individual. As a result, he should know what to do to keep you healthy, even as research points to the contrary.

A recent study by the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that only 20 percent of doctors correctly screened patients for colon cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths. The doctors likely to do the right thing were younger, board-certified, and used electronic medical records. Those most likely to incorrectly screen or not screen at all were older, much like the fictional television doctor, Marcus Welby. He’s a doctor we would all feel comfortable with and we would trust to keep us well.

Who did better, a health plan or a doctor? The HMO health insurance plans in the top 10 percent of performance screened 72 percent of their enrollees appropriately for colon cancer, three and half times more than the doctors. The bottom 10 percent screened 47 percent of patients. The news for enrollees in the more popular PPO plans is more worrisome. Screening rates of these plans were only 54 and 39 percent respectively for the top and bottom 10 percent of plans.

It’s not obvious the reasons for this difference in performance among health plans or the difference between doctors and health plans. Do better health plans have systematic ways of keeping patients healthy or reminding doctors at the point of care? Is it that doctors who are better naturally gravitate to health plans that are focused on prevention? After all, the work of screening and providing the preventive interventions are done by doctors not by insurance companies.

As a practicing primary care doctor, I constantly balance the art of medicine, the bedside manner, and the science, the evidence based research. Before I joined with a high quality health insurance plan, I thought I was pretty good. The initial data showed otherwise. Over the past few years, I’m far better at keeping my patients healthy. With this insight I now know that given a choice, I would always start with health insurance quality first and then the doctors selection second. It doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t feel right. The science part of my medical degree says it is right.

The striking difference between health plan performance means that a choice most of us view as a simple formality or even an annoyance, picking a health insurance plan, is really a choice between getting the best care or not. A true choice between life and death. Intellectually this doesn’t make sense. Doctors take care of us. They are accountable to keeping us well, yet the data and research seems pretty compelling.

This year 186,000 Americans won’t have the opportunity to make the right choice because the health plan they had wasn’t high quality.

Will you make the same mistake this year?


The two California HMO plans that were in the top 15 percent in the nation were Kaiser Permanente Northern California and Kaiser Permanente Southern California. Each takes care of more patients than the entire top 10 HMOs combined.

*This blog post was originally published at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis*

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