Dec 08 2011

Check Out Those Health Charities Before You Donate

This column first appeared
in the Syracuse Post Standard
December 6, 2011

It’s that time of year again.  The holidays, of course. But also the end of the tax year, when charities, including groups like cancer societies or hospital foundations, are pleading for donations.

Each year in December my husband and I make contributions to the charities we think are important, many of which are health-related.  Last year money was tight, and we knew we would either have to cut back on how much we donated, or leave some organizations off our list.

To help us make those difficult decisions, I did some background research on each of the charities we ordinarily support. I was surprised at what I found!  And learned some tips to share with you, too.

First, I learned that when children need specialized cancer treatment, they will get the same treatment  whether they live in Paris, Tokyo, Sydney – or Syracuse. Pediatric oncologists worldwide share their research and successes to the benefit of children everywhere.

I had to ask myself – why would we send a contribution to a children’s hospital out of state?  Since children receive the same specialized treatments, doesn’t it make more sense to donate in our own backyards?  I’m sure those famous children’s hospitals provide excellent care.  But if my child was sick, and I had to stay with her in a city far away, how would I get to work?  Where would I stay?  Bottom line – we decided to donate to our local children’s hospital, knowing local kids would get the great care they need.

Next up – family interests. Within my husband’s family or mine, we have loved ones who have dealt with Alzheimer’s, diabetes, lymphoma and breast cancer.  We have always donated to those very large, national charitable foundations, thinking our money was going toward education, research, and of course, a cure.

Not so fast! It turns out that not all charitable foundations are equal – including those we’ve sent money to each year.  I discovered that some charities are actually quite questionable. For example, too much of their money goes toward “undetermined” administrative costs. Or worse, only a small percentage of their budget goes toward their stated goals of education, patient support or research.  One very well known charity is spending the bulk of its donations on legal fees, suing smaller charities!

Based on that information, we decided against supporting two of the organizations we’ve sent money to for years.

As a result of this process, I realized that if more of us were choosier about our donations, health-related or not, the most effective and efficient organizations would have more funds to really make progress with their missions – a benefit for everyone.

You may want to review your charity choices, too, to be sure your donations have the best chance of accomplishing the goals you think are important.

Here are some additional resources for
choosing the best charities for your donor dollars:

How to Donate Money to Health and Disease Charities

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Nov 23 2011

Healthy Travel Tips for the Holidays

This column first appeared
in the Syracuse Post Standard
November 22, 2011

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You may be among the millions of Americans who will travel during the upcoming holidays. Travel takes you out of your normal environment and disturbs your routine. If you have health issues, like a chronic disease, an injury, or even a short-term illness, it’s smart to prepare ahead of time for those changes and accommodate for them where possible.  You’ll want to be sure your travel doesn’t upset your health, and your health doesn’t upset your travel.

Drugs, supplements and supplies:  Pack enough to cover the days you’ll be away, plus extra, in case flights are delayed or a blizzard closes the roads. If you fly, remember that airlines can lose checked bags, so keep all medical supplies with you in your carry-on bag. Any time difference at your destination may require an adjustment of your drug routine. Make yourself a chart ahead of time to keep your regimen on schedule.

Airport security:  The TSA has strict rules about what can, or cannot go through security.  Medications, oxygen, inhalers and other medical items must be packed in certain ways, and will be screened through x-ray machines. Go online before you fly to learn to learn how to get your medical equipment or materials through security.  http://1.usa.gov/TSAMedical

Foods:  Alert your host ahead of time if you have special dietary requirements, or if certain foods upset your digestion. Mention any food allergies you have or conflicts with drugs you take. Plans can be made to accommodate your needs when they are discussed ahead of time.

Contagious diseases:  Of course, holiday time is often cold and flu time, too.  Get your flu shot prior to travel. Wash or sanitize your hands as often as possible, and keep them away from your mouth, nose or eyes. If you are highly susceptible or your immune system is compromised, consider wearing a face mask to protect yourself from others who might be contagious. If you have a cold, then cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands, to prevent infecting others.

Long Distance Travel:  If you’ll be sitting for great lengths of time in a car or plane, you risk potentially deadly blood clots in your legs called DVT (deep vein thrombosis.). Keep your blood circulating by taking hourly breaks to walk around and stretch.

These travel preparations will keep you healthier and will make your visit more enjoyable, too.

Here are some additional resources for
making sure you stay healthy while traveling:

•  Tips for Healthy Travel
Before You Go, As You Travel, and At Your Destination

•  Tips for Healthy International Travel

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Nov 10 2011

Can You Really Save Money With a High Deductible Health Insurance Plan?

This column first appeared
in the Syracuse Post Standard November 8, 2011

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Last column we looked at Medicare Open Enrollment and how Medicare recipients can find great resources for helping them choose which health plan is right for them.

Unfortunately, the rest of us, those who are under age 65 and face Open Enrollment for private health insurance, aren’t so lucky.  While resources do exist to help us choose, not many of them are objective.  Most are offered by health insurers themselves and tend to be biased.

This year, one of the biggest Open Enrollment questions we under-65ers have is whether it makes sense to choose a high deductible plan. These plans have much lower monthly premiums, but require us to pay thousands more from our pockets before insurance pays its portion.

Those lower premiums are so tempting!  But they may also end up being very expensive. There is a reason the alternate term for “high deductible” is “catastrophic.” “Catastrophic” is supposed to refer to the fact that you will be covered if you or your family member suffers a catastrophic accident or diagnosis. But if it’s not the right plan for you, it can be catastrophic for your wallet.

So how can you determine if a high deductible plan is the right choice?  Get out your crystal ball, and try to predict how much medical care you and your family members will need in 2012. How many doctor visits?  How many prescriptions? Are you due for expensive tests? Will your 10-year-old soccer star get a concussion? Will you fall off the roof while scraping ice?

The more medical care you require, the less likely a high deductible plan will save you money.  If your medical needs eventually cost more than the deductible amount, then, in total, you will probably lose money over choosing a regular plan with a lower deductible, even though the premium is higher.  Remember, the total deductible isn’t all you’ll pay when you need care.  Once the deductible is met, your additional co-pay may be as much as 40 percent of each medical bill.

If you and your family are mostly healthy, and you decide a catastrophic insurance plan will serve your needs, then establish a Health Savings Plan, too. It’s tax-favored savings you may use for any health-related need, and even if you don’t spend it, does not disappear at the end of the year.

Here are some additional resources for making smart choices during Open Enrollment:

•  Choosing the Right Insurance Plan During Open Enrollment

•  Should I Choose a High Deductible or Catastrophic Health Insurance Plan?

•  What Is a Health Savings Account?

•  Medicare 101 and Medicare Open Enrollment

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Oct 27 2011

Medicare Open Enrollment – Time to Figure It Out

This column first appeared
in the Syracuse Post Standard October 25, 2011

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If you’ve watched TV, read the newspaper, or logged on to any health-related website recently, then you may already know that it’s Medicare Open Enrollment time.

Open Enrollment means you have the opportunity to make choices that affect both your access to the healthcare you need, and the cost of that care, by choosing a payer plan that fits your needs.

Too many Medicare recipients simply default to whatever plan they used the year before, perhaps because they didn’t understand how to assess which plan would work best for them.

But it doesn’t have to be so difficult. There are some excellent resources available. So why not take the time this year to figure out which plan fits you the best?

If you are a do-it-yourselfer, begin with the Medicare Find-A-Plan website. It will walk you through your options, including pricing for the drugs you take, then will reveal your options and their costs. You can compare Original Medicare against many Medicare Advantage plans.  From customer service to co-pays and health ratings, you can weigh cost and coverage against quality to make your choice.

Another way to do your research is to attend plan presentation programs offered by the many insurers that offer Medicare Advantage Plans. They can be very informative, but remember that the speakers are salespeople. Their paychecks depend on enlisting new customers. Don’t be swayed by coffee, cookies and promises! Ask good questions and compare many plans before you sign a contract.

For those who need an additional helping hand, personal, tailored, free assistance is offered to help you sort out the options.  Called SHIP programs (State Health Insurance Counseling and Assistance Programs), they are staffed by volunteers who walk you through your decision making.

If Medicare Open Enrollment seems a bit early this year, it is.  The process was started earlier so it could end earlier, too – December 7th.  Ending the process early means you’ll be sure to get your Medicare ID card in time for early January appointments.

With so many ways to find help, you owe it to yourself to spend some time this Fall to review your Medicare options for 2012 and make needed adjustments.  It’s “only” your health and money, after all.

……………… ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ON THIS TOPIC ………………

Medicare 101 – The Basics

Open Enrollment (Fall 2011) for Medicare 2012

What’s the Difference Between
Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage Plans
?

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Oct 13 2011

A Dose of Reality – Today’s Doctor Appointment

Please note that this column first appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard
October 11, 2011

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In the “old” days, we could phone for a primary care doctor’s appointment in the morning, be seen right away, spend enough time with the doctor, leave with a treatment plan, and usually feel better within a day or two.

But no longer! Today it’s difficult to get an appointment, even within a few days. We sit in waiting rooms far longer than we expect. Then when we finally see the doctor, we often feel like we’re being rushed out the door.

We patients tend to blame our doctors and the way they run their practices. Why should we have to wait so long? Why won’t they spend more time with us?  What’s the big hurry?

The truth is, your doctor doesn’t like today’s limited time system either.  He would love nothing more than to be able to make immediate appointments, see you the moment you arrive in his office, and spend plenty of time with you, too.  But the insurance reimbursement system doesn’t make that possible.

Last week I had the opportunity to work with personnel at North and Northeast Medical Centers.  I was asked to help them help us patients manage this time-constrained reality we are all stuck with to improve patient satisfaction. I suggested some steps they can take to help their patients get the most from their appointments.

But the patient-provider relationship is two sided. We patients need to take our responsibilities in that relationship more seriously, too.

We can do so by preparing ahead of our appointments:

First – Write down anything that is new since your last appointment. New symptoms, new aches or pains, new supplements you’re talking, drugs another doctor has prescribed, or new triggers you’ve discovered that create problems for you. Record them along with the dates they started.

Second – Take a list of every drug and supplement you take, including brand names and dosages.  Note any that will need renewal within the next 90 days.  Or, instead of listing them, throw the containers into a bag and take them with you.

Third – Write down your questions. Prioritize them since you’ll only have time to ask two or three.  If you have more than one medical problem, and therefore extra questions, then make an additional appointment.

Being a prepared patient will make every interface with your doctor more effective and efficient. You’ll be more likely to get what you need – a collaboration that’s beneficial to you and your doctor.

……………… ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ON THIS TOPIC ………………

 Effective Patient-Doctor Communications

Why Do I Wait So Long for my Doctor Appointment?

Are You Prepared for Your Doctor Appointment?

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