In Conversations About Health Care in America, Health Literacy Must Remain in the Discussion

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March 07, 2017
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As the new administration determines its approach for providing health insurance coverage for Americans, two things are clear: a disproportionate number continue to be lost in the health care system and the need for clear communication about health insurance persists. Research shows that many consumers lack a basic understanding of how the system works, what their options are, and how to get and use their benefits.

At the center of this issue is the concept of health literacy. Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Consumers with low health literacy lack the skills needed to navigate the complex health care systems in government programs, the private health insurance industry and the health care delivery environment.

On the individual level, a consumer with low health literacy may have difficulty choosing the right insurance plan, filling out an application form, or understanding what services are covered. On a larger scale, it means that a growing number of consumers cannot make informed decisions about their health, preventing them from accessing the best care and living healthier lives. For example, many consumers often stay in the same plan year after year — even when better choices are available to them. And as the number and complexity of choices increase, consumers’ ability to choose the optimal plan declines, affecting their utilization of services and — in the end — their health. These factors exemplify why low health literacy is a strong predictor of health disparities. These disparities often lead to burgeoning costs shouldered by industry and government — costs that now run into billions of dollars.

Consumers in certain underserved communities and population segments are most vulnerable to low health literacy levels, which only deepens the existing health disparities in these groups. This includes the elderly, non-native English speakers, the LGBTQ community and people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. In effect, consumers who can most benefit from health care as an everyday part of their lives are the ones least able to understand it and access it.

Addressing health literacy is crucial to improve both the health of consumers and the health of our economy. Knowledge and understanding about one’s health status and needs translates to healthy actions and ultimately better health outcomes. When consumers better understand and make optimal choices regarding their health, the burden of care and health care costs decrease. And by addressing health literacy in at-risk communities, we can make strides toward reducing health disparities.

The MAXIMUS Center for Health Literacy is committed to easing the burden that low health literacy places on individuals and communities. To do this, we create communication tools that help consumers navigate the health insurance landscape — whether it’s Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or other state insurance programs. Working with our federal and state government clients, we improve the readability and usability of print materials and websites by using plain language techniques and testing materials directly with consumers. Even as we enter this era of change, we will continue to give consumers the tools and resources they need to succeed in the health care realm. With many changes on the horizon, we need to ensure that easy-to-understand communication materials are available to consumers. From our work, we know that the more accessible and digestible health information is, the more consumers will “get it.”

When consumers are empowered to make informed decisions about their insurance, they are empowered to make the right decisions concerning their health. And that makes a difference in obtaining quality care and improving health and quality of life.