Optum: How payers can help members prepare for the financial impacts of chronic disease 

The outside of Optum's headquarters
A new report from Optum highlights the financial impacts of chronic disease. (UnitedHealth Group)

Chronic disease can have significant financial impacts on patients and many are unprepared for those costs, a new report from Optum shows. 

A new white paper from Optum Bank, which administers healthcare financial products such as health savings accounts, shows that 35% of people with a chronic illness have struggled to pay a medical bill within the past year. 

Chronic disease care accounts for 90% of healthcare costs, according to the report, and some of the costliest illnesses for insurers include cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Deb Culhane, Optum Bank’s CEO and one of the report’s authors, told FierceHealthcare that one in four people enter retirement age with at least one chronic disease. 

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“I think that healthcare consumers need to continue to be educated with the realities of how much their personal health situation and health journey can impact their long-term financial security,” Culhane said. 

Navigating the healthcare system is confusing on its own, without layering on the additional challenge of saving to cover chronic needs. The report offers four solutions that insurers or HSA administrators could take to improve members’ financial preparedness, including:

  1. Provide cost estimator and transparency tools. 

  1. Make information on resources easily available. 

  1. Offer a liaison or member advocacy program.

  1. Work with employers to provide access to financial tools, from plans that include HSAs to financial counseling. 

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“Companies should engage in advocacy wherever advocacy is possible,” Culhane said. “Your focus needs to be on your health condition and companies need to help you manage the financial implications of that.” 

Within Optum, this is a company-wide focus, Culhane said. Optum’s diverse healthcare portfolio, however, puts it in a unique position for this kind of alignment, Culhane acknowledged. 

She said that while it may seem like “common sense” that your health can impact your finances, many fail to think ahead.  

The report shows that younger millennials put the least away in an HSA when compared to older generations. Millennials under age 26 put an average of just over $1,000 in an HSA in 2016, compared to an average of about $3,500 for baby boomers. 

“I think we’re pointing out that chronic conditions are even more important to understand while healthy so you can start to plan for this from both a medical and financial perspective,” Culhane said, “because it has an opportunity to derail what otherwise has been sound financial planning.”