Independent voice rises to help consumers navigate health care

LOS ANGELES (April 14, 2005)-As health insurance systems become ever more complicated and as people with low incomes struggle to get health care, independent help agencies are increasingly filling the gap in resolving consumers' problems, according to researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.

Patients have had few places to turn-other than their own health plans-for help if they receive unexpected medical bills or refusals for much-needed medical equipment. They also have had few resources in figuring out how to choose health coverage or how to navigate public insurance programs. But a network of California legal services groups has become a valuable lifeline for these patients, researchers write in the April issue of the Journal of Community Health.

The Health Consumer Alliance, or HCA, is an independent, coordinated effort of nine non-profit groups that provide free help to low-income consumers in 10 California counties stretching from Placer to San Diego. More than 4 million people in these areas live at least 200 percent below the federal poverty level.

The groups are not affiliated with any insurance companies or government insurance programs, so they may serve as an independent voice at a time of growing concern over patient rights, employer and health plan liability, and independent review.

"Our study shows that there is a need for assistance in navigating our complicated health care system, and the establishment of independent centers to provide that assistance is key to improving health care access for our vulnerable populations," said Lori Miller Nascimento, M.P.H., the study's lead author and associate director of the division of community health in the Keck School's Department of Family Medicine.

"The centers may also reduce costs, morbidity and litigation that could occur if consumers' problems were not otherwise resolved."

Interviewers surveyed 1,291 HCA users f

Contact: Sarah Huoh
University of Southern California

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