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Say What? Jargon Busters Tackle Health Insurance

Good luck getting there!
Good luck getting there!

Scared you'll have no idea how to choose the best health plan come fall? Dr. Ruth Parker feels your pain, and she offers a handy solution that may help.

Even a lot of health providers don't know this stuff. And we need to.

One of America's savviest busters of medical jargon, Parker recently worked with several colleagues to create a guide to getting and using health insurance in 2014. It's a guide that you, your grandmother and the seventh-grader next door can understand.

And it only takes a few minutes to read.

"Even a lot of health providers don't know this stuff, and we need to," says Parker, an internist and pediatrician who specializes in health literacy research at Emory University in Atlanta. "Telling patients to 'ask at the front desk,' or 'see if you can find a social worker to get answers' — that's just not enough," she tells Shots.

Wading through insurance jargon has never been easy. A recent study by Carnegie Mellon researchers found that Americans' knowledge of insurance fundamentals is downright dismal. Only 14 percent of people understood basics of their policies, like deductibles and copays — concepts that can make a huge difference in determining how much money you'd have to pay for emergency treatment after a car crash, for example.

With the rollout of the federal health law, things are getting more complicated.

So Parker, a few friends at the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine, several young doctors and some Emory students combed through thousands of wonky Web pages and documents so you wouldn't have to. They extracted and translated the stuff they found to help anyone answer these four basic questions:

  • What are my choices for health insurance?
  • How do I get it?
  • How do I use it?
  • And what will it cost me?
  • The result is an online guide, now posted with accompanying materials on the IOM website. It unfolds naturally from those four questions, and reads like a handout from your favorite middle school teacher. It's not fancy — just very clear.

    Parker says every state's interpretation of the law is slightly different, so consumers and doctors will still need a bit more information to tailor the info. There are websites listed in each section of the brochure to find follow-up information, and already some state agencies and nonprofits are incorporating the guide into their own materials.

    "It's available for free to anyone who can use it," Parker says. States, doctors, or community college professors, for example, might use it as part of a curriculum in teaching health, or English as a second language. So far, the guide's only in English. "But it needs to be in Spanish," and other languages, too, Parker says.

    The volunteers who worked on the guide went out of their way to steer clear of politics, or to favor one type of insurance over another. "Nobody's trying to sell you anything here," she says. "We very intentionally tried to be fact-based, and break this complicated process into pieces — baby steps — so that people would realize they can do this, they have options." Sometimes she says, just to get the right kind of help, you have to know what to ask for.

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