Why health literacy is a crucial part of healthcare reform

Mar 13, 2013

On this week's Health and Wealth Update, the first part of a discussion about health literacy and the healthcare reform. 

According to Affordable Care Act, "health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, communicate, process and understand the basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions." 

On Monday, I went to a forum in Columbia that discussed the state’s Medicaid expansion debate. The nonprofit Missouri Foundation for Health hosted the event – the sixth in a series of community forums on Medicaid the foundation has held across the state. 

Credit Harum Helmy / KBIA News

“We’ve had some really good discussion around the state in terms of cost both in the federal and state level, impact on people’s health and their lives, the whole spectrum of issues have come up," said Ryan barker, the the foundation's director for health policy and the presenter at these forums.  

Now – the audience at the Columbia forum Monday night seem to already be well-informed about Medicaid expansion. Many of the audience members were health care providers, or social justice advocates. They asked details about what would happen to the state’s high-risk insurance pool, or wondered about whether there will be asset tests for new Medicaid recipients.

After the forum, Barker told me that haven’t been in the case in all the other forums he’s hosted.

"There have been places that we’ve gone where it’s been more of the general public and asking a lot more basic questions about Medicaid, what does this all mean, and just not knowing as much as much as the crowd here tonight," Barker said. 

I found that interesting, considering the Medicaid expansion bill filed by Rep. Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City) last month. The Republican response to Gov. Jay Nixon's proposal and House Democrats' bill to expand Medicaid, Barnes’s expansion model would make new Medicaid participants pick their own health insurance plans from a list of private insurers.

So I asked Barker, if many Missourians still have basic questions about Medicaid – what happens if Barnes’ bill gets implemented and Medicaid recipients have to pick their own plans? Are Missourians ready?

“I work in health care and I get my annual insurance plan’s big booklet, I often have a hard time understanding exactly what my plan is and what does it cover and what is all this language mean?” Barker said. “So I think most Missourians have a hard time understanding what are these different plan options – which one is best for me and my family. People need help understanding their options and understanding what works best for me and my family.”

And there’s also the question of the online health insurance marketplace that’s supposed to be up and running by October 2013. Under the Affordable Care Act, every state has to have a website where low-income residents can compare and purchase private insurance health plans. These days – most Missourians, like most Americans, get health insurance through their employers. Most have likely never made these types of insurance decisions on their own. On next week’s show, we’ll explore whether Missourians are equipped for this change.