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October has been designated as Health Literacy Month, which brings a renewed focus on ensuring that Americans understand how to manage their health care, and with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), how to manage their health insurance coverage. Health literacy is defined as the degree to which an individual has the ability to obtain, communicate, process and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. The higher a person’s health literacy, the higher the chances are of them taking control of their health care and improving their outcomes.

With the passing of the ACA, a new era for health care was created. Suddenly, millions of people who hadn’t before now had access to health care. The Office of the Assistant Secretary now estimates that 17.6 million uninsured people have gained health insurance coverage. 

Unfortunately, many people have trouble understanding their health insurance and thus are not effectively using it to receive care. Health insurance literacy is a key tenet of health literacy efforts, as this is how consumers choose and manage their health care options. Currently, more than 90 million American adults cannot understand or act on the health information they need. These health insurance difficulties take a toll on consumers’ health and financial well-being, and they have cost implications for health plans and the nation.

Even those with higher education levels can have difficulty understanding complex health information. A renewed focus on improving the population’s health literacy, especially health insurance literacy, helps the entire country work towards better health care and better health outcomes. And, since two of the main goals of the ACA are to expand access to health insurance and reduce costs, it is important to ensure that citizens have the tools to make informed health decisions and the understanding of how to use their health insurance coverage to obtain health care.

It has been proven that by increasing health literacy, health insurance costs are reduced because beneficiaries will better understand what they need to do in the case of health care events. The National Academy of Sciences found that, “people with low health literacy understand health information less well, get less preventive health care—such as screenings for cancer—and use expensive health services such as emergency department care more frequently.” For example, instead of continuing to go to the emergency room with a sore throat, they’ll understand that they should go to their Primary Care Provider for an in-office visit, therefore saving themselves from unnecessary suffering and the health care system from unnecessary costs.

To increase health literacy, there are a few things to do to help beneficiaries:  

  • Don’t use a “one-size-fits-all” approach. In order to effectively reach a target population, conduct research to ensure each outreach strategy is tailored appropriately to that community.
  • Provide equal service and attention. Everyone deserves the same overall quality of service; low-income individuals or non-English speakers should not have a longer wait time than other populations when looking to engage with a health professional and receive health information. Make sure this population isn’t discouraged by longer wait times by providing trained resources for their unique needs.
  • Meet them where they are. Engagement with hard-to-reach individuals should be conducted in the places they live, work and play, using the various communication channels  where they are engaged—such as within faith-based organizations, magazines, radio stations and social media platforms. 
  • Utilize consumer testing and feedback. Across print and digital, we have to make sure the tools and resources actually work for the different audiences. Listening to the consumer is critical, not only in the beginning, but throughout the entire process. Usability testing is key to developing solutions that people will actually use.

Increasing health literacy will improve health outcomes, access to health insurance and change lives. This is why health literacy is a key focus in the new age of the ACA and what better time to highlight it than during National Health Literacy Month.