Washington trails the nation in “whole body” health rights for consumers.
For example, while a mental health parity law was passed in 2005, it has been indifferently enforced. Washington stood out in not being among the majority of states — including Mississippi and South Carolina — safeguarding coverage for those with autism. It took private litigation, not state enforcement, to bring settlements with insurers and, finally, an emphatic 9-0 Washington Supreme Court decision this year that invalidated blanket exclusions of neurodevelopmental therapies. The court expressly refused to attach any significance to the state’s inaction in protecting children with autism.
While Washington has been aggressive in implementing the Affordable Care Act, there are shortcomings. Medicaid rates are abominable in attracting providers. And a recent state report gloating over lower private health insurance premiums in Seattle ignored big increases in the only coverage available in many places elsewhere; the insurance titan that is the primary offender lavishes its campaign donations between both parties.
The self-satisfied Washington report also glossed over skyrocketing deductibles — up over $1,000 in just a year’s time for the popular “silver” level of coverage. Most consumers forced to pay over $3,000 on top of premiums will find care inaccessible and coverage illusory. For them, $3,000 (or as high as $13,200 for a family) might as well be $3 million.
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Faced with high costs to even access coverage, any costs that are entirely uncovered are luxuries most cannot afford. Tragically, those costs include hearing coverage.
Twenty states are progressive enough to require insurance plans cover hearing aids for children — three require coverage for adults as well. Washington is not among these states.
Hearing loss becomes more common, and disabling, as one gets older. Growing from 8.5 percent of adults of the pre-Medicare ages of 55-64, roughly a quarter of those between 65-74 have disabling hearing loss, and over half of those 75 and older. But few can afford hearing aids. Federal statistics show only 30 percent of those 70 and older who could benefit have tried hearing aids. For those younger adults with disabling hearing loss, only 16 percent of those between 20-69 have tried hearing aids.
Those without hearing aids are held back in social interaction. Some may try to get by on the cheap with “sound amplifiers” turning up the volume in an undifferentiated way that can make speech indistinguishable from background noise. Small wonder a recent study suggested an increase in cognitive function accompanied by wearing hearing aids.
For the 2016 session Washington should try to be at least as progressive as Arkansas, and adopt hearing coverage insurance mandates for both children and adults. For tens of thousands of Washingtonians with disabling hearing loss this would help mitigate the ACA’s runaway costs.
Brendan Williams is a former 22nd District state representative (2005-10) and frequent health care writer.