Viewpoint: Why short-term health plans should worry patients without them

While only a few million people have short-term health insurance plans, new rules expanding their availability could have a negative effect on any patient who uses a hospital, according to an opinion piece published in STAT.

HHS' final rule on short-term health plans went into effect Oct. 2. While short-term plans used to have a three-month cap, Americans can now buy short-term health plans that offer coverage for a longer period of time. Coverage can now span less than a year, and extensions and renewals can last as long as three years, depending on what states decide.

While the policies are less expensive than typical health plans, coverage is less extensive. Short-term health insurance plans are not required to comply with consumer protections established by the ACA, such as the requirement to cover essential health benefits and pre-existing conditions.

"Those of us with employment-related health insurance should care about policies affecting the few million people stuck between a rock and a hard place when buying health insurance because they use the same hospitals we do," Vivian Ho, PhD, a member of the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute's executive advisory committee, wrote in the op-ed.

If some of these members opt for less comprehensive coverage, they may face higher out-of-pocket costs. "People with short-term insurance function as uninsured when they seek treatment for conditions their policies don't cover, such as childbirth, heart attack, or emergency psychiatric care," Dr. Ho wrote. As a result, hospitals' uncompensated care expenses could rise. The American Hospital Association found hospitals' uncompensated care costs were $35.7 billion in 2015 and grew to $38.3 billion in 2016.

Hospitals with less financial stability often have lower-quality care, according to the report, which cites data from Richmond-based Virginia Commonwealth University researchers.

Dr. Ho concluded "the odds are good that you or someone in your family will need hospital care, meaning that a policy move in Washington that seems unrelated to you could matter to you more than you might think."

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