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The Health Care Story – Let’s Rewrite It

On October 31, 2013, in Health Care, by Michelle
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The best stories come from curiosity…” – Steven Brill, author of A Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us

ReformToTransform

A program of UHCF of CT.

On Monday I attended an inspiring forum on the current challenges of Connecticut’s health care system led by the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, a group I love for their tenacity and conviction in driving health care reform in the state. I was really excited to be at the forum (“Reform to Transform”) alongside other residents who are looking for answers to rewriting our health care story. Steven Brill was the headliner, and someone I was excited to hear speak ever since watching him on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart many months ago. During that first introduction to Brill I found myself shouting at the TV – something I often do as I so readily agree with Stewart’s practical, matter-of-fact reflection on the issues of the day. My shouts on that particular night were to the tune of “Amen” and “I’ve been saying that for years!” as Stewart questioned Brill on the investigative report, “Bitter Pill” he had written for Time magazine.  The report, and the discussion of that evening, focused on the core issues that make our current health care system so unsustainable including:

  • No true security in health insurance, with plans that drop patients or fail to cover essential treatments.
  • Costs that contribute to 60% of all bankruptcies in the country.
  • Exorbitant prices that disregard fair market pricing.
  • Profits made on human services in an inhumane way (i.e. CEOs and medical manufacturers making millions while health care workers and patients suffer).
  • The built-in demand for services (i.e. you could die if you don’t access care, so consumers have no choice or leverage).

What’s Your Story?

As Steven introduced himself on Monday he shared the impetus behind delving into the health care system, a journalistic curiosity fueled by the realization that everyone has their own health care story. Either you or someone you know has had frighteningly high medical bills at one time or another. It is a topic that is universally relatable, and the widespread consequences of this issue make it important for everyone in Connecticut, and the country. The packed auditorium offered assurance that many are awake to this fact and want to know the potential solutions that the panelists: Patrick Charmel, CEO of Griffin Hospital; Kevin Lembo, Connecticut State Comptroller; and Brill, had to offer.

The Price is Too D*** High!

If Jimmy McMillan had been at the forum I’m quite sure he would have proclaimed health care costs are “too damn high!” That was a theme that each of the panelists reflected loud and clear. Lots of money is being made in the industry, but not by those who are actually providing the care. The biggest share of profits go to medical equipment manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance execs. None of those parties have any incentive to lower costs because the consumer is under the illusion, and often the reality, that they have no control. As Charmel pointed out in his dealings with insurance companies he has found, “there’s no incentive to lower premiums.” Kevin Lembo agreed that for years the state of Connecticut has relied on the insurance industry, which is largely housed in the state, to whittle their rates down. But, that simply hasn’t happened. In fact, as Brill noted after doing a little comparison shopping on the new online exchange, the cost from premiums in New Haven Country are higher than some of the wealthiest burrows of New York City. Clearly insurance rates are not based on a consumer’s ability to pay, but rather a toxic soup of other factors that often make it unreasonable for the average Connecticut family to afford.

The System is Too Complicated

Brill also noted that in his recent reviews of Access Health Connecticut, the online exchange in the state, it was very difficult to understand why premiums varied widely. More importantly, it was unclear how to determine the quality of a particular plan. There were ratings exhibited by stars, but there were no explanations as to what those stars meant. As he put it, “most people, even if you’re really well-trained, will have trouble figuring it out.” I have to agree with that statement, because although I haven’t yet attempted to utilize the state’s exchange, I was challenged with purchasing a medical plan for myself and my husband several months ago. Even though I have worked in the health insurance industry as well as the health care industry, and I have been a regular user of the system as a patient, it took me several weeks to sort out all the different plans. I was trying to balance the cost of deductibles, premiums, and copays with the future level of care my husband and I needed and could afford. Although I used logic, it ultimately felt like I needed a crystal ball to make that decision. I did have information to work with, as I was using Healthplanone.com which aggregates different plans and allows you to sort by cost and insurer (similar to what the new online exchanges do). But, I don’t really know if I was truly getting the best value for our particular needs.

Costs Must Be Transparent

The reason I couldn’t really assess value is because as a consumer I don’t actually know what anything costs. That is the piece of the health care story that makes it a mystery. All three panelists seemed to agree strongly on the point that what the industry needs most is transparency. There should not be secretive contracts between insurance companies and hospitals or negotiated rates that consumers aren’t privy too. As a patient with Hashimoto’s Thyroditis (a very common condition) who avoids most conventional medicine in favor of natural healing, the only regular health care costs I must incur are lab tests. Yet, how can I possibly decide if I should go with Aetna or Anthem as my insurance carrier when I have no idea what either of those companies will be charging me for those lab tests? Believe me I have asked. In fact I often ask at the lab before I have my blood drawn, only to be told “we don’t have that information; it is up to what your insurance company has negotiated.” I have even heard of cases in which the rate that patients are charged when they use their insurance is more than what the service costs for consumers without insurance. It probably wouldn’t even occur to anyone to ask about that, but as consumers we should.

Consumers Must Be Involved

Indeed consumers must demand as much information as possible going forward. If health insurance is going to be mandatory, as I personally believe it should be, it must also be completely open to free market principles of supply and demand. No secret negotiations. No special contracts with medical manufacturers. And, if a consumer wants to know what something costs, they should be able to get that info with a quick search on a website or in a five-minute phone call. There again was no debate from the panelists on the issue of consumer involvement. In fact, it is an imperative according to Lembo who manages the health insurance costs of over 200,000 state employees. He sees firsthand that consumers often unwittingly drive the sky-high cost of care by utilizing emergency services when they should really just be nursing a cold with bed rest and plenty of fluids, or they should be selecting hospital services by comparison shopping first. Patrick Charmel agreed that in order to give Connecticut’s health care story a happy ending, incentives must be built into the system to encourage everyone to live healthier lifestyles. As a Dietitian and Health Coach, I hope such incentives will become a reality, because right now they simply seem like a fairy tale. Consumers are used to accepting that to be well they must see their doctor, take costly medications, and have surgery as a quick solution, when in reality we all have the ability to rewrite our own health care story through natural healing. We the people need to take control of our own care to make the Affordable Care Act truly affordable and viable for all.

UHCFFollow the Universal Health Care Foundation for more on ways you can stay involved, or for those outside of Connecticut, get tips for navigating the system through Consumer Reports Health Insurance site.

Have any ideas on how you can rewrite your health care story? Please share below….

Gluten Free Websites

On August 30, 2013, in Gluten Free, by Michelle
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I have been following a gluten free diet for 5 years (see Going Gluten Free) and in that time it astounds me at how many resources in the way of websites, blogs and recipe sites have cropped up. Here are just a smattering of different sites that I hope you will find helpful in your gluten free journey!

 

 

A Happy Healthy Hiatus

On August 15, 2012, in General Health, Misc / Tips, Natural Health, by Michelle
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I has been an awfully long time since I have posted to this blog – 8 months to be exact. I just didn’t have time! In completing my master’s degree, and working on my culminating project, all my writing energies were in action elsewhere.

HappyHealthyHer.comYou can see the fruits of my labors in the resulting website:

www.HappyHealthyHer.com

Given my time away, I have been able to reflect on just how great a hiatus can be:

Education is Empowering

My experience with completing a master’s degree in Integrative Health & Healing was amazing! It made me realize that although I had been reading voraciously on health, and writing as well, I wasn’t completely immersed in the process. I didn’t have colleagues or instructors to share my passions with, and to learn from. I had been going it alone, which kept me informed, but it hadn’t made me empowered. I can honestly say that being immersed in the educational experience has provided me with the comprehensive experiential knowledge and understanding that I just could not get on my own. I think all adults should have the opportunity to fuel their creative spark in such a way.

Introspection is Essential

In education you must do a great deal of soul searching. You have to think about what is really important to you, and bend your beliefs as new information is uncovered. It can be tiring, yet amazingly uplifting at the same time. During my degree, daily journaling was encouraged and I found that putting my innermost thoughts on paper was a window into my soul. I was able to uncover who I really was at heart, and what I really wanted out of life. That is some pretty profound stuff! We all think we know what we want, but I can tell you, I was never as sure about what I stood for as I am now after two years of journaling. If you haven’t ever tried it, I urge you to give it a shot.

Reading is “Fun”damental

I remember that somewhat cheesy line from grade school. Back then I really didn’t like to read because books were often forced upon me, and then I was told what they meant, or how I was supposed to interpret them. Ridiculous! All written material is subject to the reader’s perception. Now that I understand that, and feel free to read under my own terms, I love reading. I feel so inspired by a good book, and also grateful to its author. Discovering works that move me has also enriched my writing tremendously and made me more sure than ever that I was meant to be a writer. My recent favorite works include: Kitchen Table Wisdom (Rachel Naomi Remen), The Genie In Your Genes (Dawson Church), The Art of Effortless Living (Ingrid Bacci), The War of Art (Steven Pressfield), and Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg). Even if you don’t opt to go back to school, you can always expand your mind with a good book.

So, although I have been on break from this blog, you can see that I have kept myself busy. If you took a hiatus what would you do?

 

An Exercise in Accountability

On December 31, 2011, in General Health, Weight Loss, by Michelle
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I started writing this post at the beginning of 2011, but somehow never got around to completing it, which is a shame because it addresses something that I think is absolutely essential for good health – ACCOUNTABILITY! A bit ironic, right? I’m about to preach about accountability, and I can’t even motivate myself to blog as frequently as I’d like. But, I promise I have good reason. I have been spending much of my time this year studying to complete a master’s degree in Integrative Health and working on my own personal health through daily exercise (of mind and body).  I even have the documentation to prove it (for the exercise that is, the degree won’t be done until August). The proof I speak of is perhaps the most powerful tool in my fitness arsenal – a calendar.

The Only Exercise Tool You’ll Ever Need

My exercise basket complete with trusty calendar

As justification that some of the best things in life are free, my 2011 calendar was sent as a gift with my annual donation to the American Institute for Cancer Research. And, what a gift it was as it has served as a constant reminder of my goal to exercise daily, or at least 5 times per week. When empty spaces started to appear, I knew that I needed to get moving.  At the beginning of the year, I stuck mostly to my favorite yoga and Pilates routines, either following along with Exercise TV on Comcast On Demand, or using my favorite DVDs. After I completed a session, I wrote it down on the calendar. The simple act of documenting my progress was very rewarding and empowering. As the year progressed, and my calendar spaces began to fill, I opted to mix things up, heading outside for hikes, trying strength training, playing Wii Fit, and my latest Wii favorite – Just Dance 2, which has proven to be quite the fun cardio workout! The key is that I never got bored and never really saw the exercise calendar as something I had to fill, but rather embraced it as something I wanted to fill.

My Inexpensive Home Gym

The full home gym complete with exercise basket, Gazelle, exercise ball, and recumbent bike.

Of course I simplify my exercise tools a bit by stressing only the calendar. There are other basics that have proven helpful for my success. But, what I want to stress is the fact that none of these items were expensive, and for the most part the only truly essential requirement was a good pair of running sneakers, although even those aren’t necessary for yoga and Pilates routines which are done in bare feet. Here is a list of the core items that I keep in a small exercise basket in my bedroom:

  • Running Sneakers – a good pair of sneakers is crucial for preventing injury when doing cardio exercises like running, dancing, or aerobics. I have a pair of inexpensive Asics ($30) that I purchased at Kohl’s a few years ago. I only wear these indoors which has kept them clean and minimized their wear-and-tear. Running sneakers seem to have the most support and cushion, although cross trainers are ideal as well.
  • Hand Weights – the pair I use is only 3 pounds, but enough weight to challenge my muscles.
  • Exercise Bands – I love exercise bands because they are so portable. The set I use now was only $2 at Target. They are great for strengthening the back and chest muscles.
  • Mini Exercise Ball - I must admit it, I bought the Bender Ball! It is actually a pretty helpful piece of ab equipment. The exercise DVDs with the ball are easy to learn and do a great job of working the whole abs.
  • Yoga Blog & Strap – The beauty of yoga is truly how little it requires.I rarely use anything more than my own body when I do yoga routines, but it doesn’t hurt to have a block or strap available for new or especially challenging poses.

As you can see by the above photo, I also have a Gazelle. Yes, that is the very one sold by Tony Little! With the Bender Ball and the Gazelle – you can see that I am not immune to infomercials. But, I really do enjoy both pieces of equipment. Although I don’t use the Gazelle as much as I had hoped, it does provide a smooth, quiet cardio workout. Sometimes I will use it while watching TV, or as a means of stretching my leg muscles.

The biggest dust collector in my exercise arsenal is of course the most expensive – my recumbent bike. It was one of my first big purchases when I lived on my own, making it a bit of a sentimental item. Back in those days I hadn’t discovered yoga or Pilates, so simply hopping on the bike and peddling away was a chore, but an effective workout none-the-less. If I had to give up one piece of equipment, that would be it, but my husband uses it occasionally, so for now it stays.

Exercise Should be Fun

I think the biggest challenge to maintaining a steady exercise routine really is a lack of commitment and accountability. If you don’t commit to doing some form of exercise every day, and then hold yourself to it – with a calendar, a planner or even an exercise app – then it is very easy to just let it go all together. That is of course, unless you grow to love your exercise routines. Because when exercise is an enjoyable part of your life, you want to do it. So, for the coming year, I encourage you to give exercise a try – whether it be walking, dancing, swimming, active video games, or one of my favorites – yoga or Pilates – there is bound to be some activity that will fill up your calendar in 2012.

 

Mastering Meditation

On November 11, 2011, in General Health, by Michelle
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Yin Yang - BalanceO.k. so there’s no real mastering of meditation – I just happen to like alliteration. The truth is that meditation requires regular practice. Some days you can quiet the mind, others you can’t. And, to be honest I don’t think I have ever completely quieted my mind. My mind happens to be a bit chatty.

However, I have gotten much better at accessing a quiet, reflective state, which is a huge breakthrough for me. The past two days in particular have been pretty profound (more alliteration ♥ ) as I have been meditating in honor of the 11/11/11 energy shifts. I was aided by recently completing  Level 1 – Emei Qigong which has helped me tap into my energy field. But, what I think really helped me reach a state of calm and relaxation was listening to healing music and performing a healing meditation – both of which had been shared by my sister Kristi. She has links on her website to the downloadable music and a recording of her reading the meditation. I’m not sure how long she will keep them posted, so get them while they’re hot! Here they are: Meditation Help (EraofPeace.org).

It has taken me over a year to get to this place where I can now sit quietly in peaceful relaxation for more then 5 or 10 minutes at a time. In fact, today I found a document I had composed from a Facebook chat with my nephew Brian that had a date of 10/16/10 on it. At that time he had given me tips as to how to help me find my inner zen. It seemed so easy at the time, but here I am over a year later and I am still a work in progress. His tips are too good not to share, so here they are :

  • The general point is to gradually work towards calming yourself to allow your mind to settle down.When a thought enters your mind, don’t fight it just let it pass.
  • Play peaceful music and then eventually try to block the music out.
  • Some people also focus on creating a circle in their mind’s eye, then putting a box in the circle, then a triangle in the square, and repeating that imagery over and over.
  • Others use a mala (a string of prayer beads) to help them stay focused. You can repeat a mantra while moving the beads to keep track of the number of times you repeat the mantra.
  • Vocal meditation is also helpful. That is where you repeat a mantra (similar to a prayer) while remaining in Lotus position, or a comfortable seated position.  Chanting Ohm Shanti is an easy and calming vocal meditation.

Right around the time of getting all of Brian’s help, I also began completing a master’s degree in Integrative Health & Healing at the Graduate Institute. The program emphasizes the integration of mind, body and spirit, making meditation a regular focus of our studies. As such, I have uncovered my own tips and techniques for calming my mind and realigning my energies through meditation. My favorites include:

  • Meditating to a piece of music that moves my spirit. I absolutely love Heart’s version of Reign O’er Me. I just listen to the music and let my mind go. It is very powerful!
  • Using a short guided meditation. LearningMeditation.com has some great meditations that are free and are only 3-5 minutes. I especially love the Healing Meditation.
  • Simply focusing on deep breathing. I read a great tip from Deepak Chopra that said to breath in to the word “just” and breath out to the word “this”. It’s a great reminder that all we ever really NEED to do is breath. How freeing!
  • Burning sandalwood incense. The scent alone puts me into a relaxed and clear-headed state.
  • Wearing a sodalite necklace or holding a carnelian crystal. Crystals carry a powerful energy and just having them in contact with my body gives me a sense of calm.

Meditation is about the journey, not the destination. So, the most important piece of advice I’ve gotten about the practice came from my instructor Denise Romano who reminds all of her students to think “who cares!” That simple statement reminds us to let go, give up all pretenses and just be. And that is what meditation is all about – no mastery required.

If you are interested in incorporating the power of meditation into an online degree program
check out this masters degree in human services.

 

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