Anyone who has ever gotten a medical bill in the mail knows how expensive medical care is — both for the patient and the insurance carrier. Consider the cost for a quadruple bypass surgery: $62,500 on average, according to the American Heart Association, a number that does not include the cost of home care, medicine or follow-up appointments. Preventive care is the key to saving money — particularly when it comes to ailments caused by stress.
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An epidemic of toxic stress
“Stress has been called the black plague of the 21st century,” says Bob Roth, the executive director of the David Lynch Foundation, which teaches Transcendental Meditation, a form of reflective meditation (focusing on a question, theme or mantra). “Modern medicine has no pill we can take to prevent stress or treat it. We can manage it through Ambien for sleeping or Xantax for anxiety, but that does not get to the underlying cause of stress.”
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According to PsychCentral, stress is linked to the six leading causes of death including heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide and 43 percent of adults have health problems because of stress.
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Pricey for everyone
Stress also leads to pricey health problems, something Rebecca Palm sees regularly as the cofounder of copatient, a service that helps consumers tackle expensive medical bills. "Health insurance costs are rising across the board, and everyone — including insurance carriers — are feeling the effects of that," she says. "On the patient side, stress can be a factor in a lot of different conditions that would make someone see a doctor. According to Forbes, workplace stress alone is responsible for up to $190 billion in annual U.S. healthcare costs."
With statistics like that, it’s no surprise many people are taking efforts to manage their stress in tangible ways, such as through yoga, exercise or different types of meditation such as mindful meditation (focusing on your breath), reflective meditation, or concentration meditation (with the aim of emptying the mind).
And insurance companies are doing their research, too. "Preventative care is one way of lowering health care costs by treating patients before any problems become much larger and more costly down the line," Palm says. "Providing stress-reducing benefits, whether it is covering yoga and other preventative care measures, are just a few examples of some of the innovative ways that the industry is reacting to people's needs."
But don't expect to be able to cash in on anything vaguely labeled as meditative.“Saying ‘meditation’ on its own doesn’t mean anything,” Roth says. “There has to be a systematic way of teaching it and evidence that it works.” One way this is done, Roth says, is by studying the levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — in the body.
To him, what’s exciting is that the evidence is there, at least for Transcendental Meditation, which he teaches. “If you get a good night’s sleep, cortisol levels drop about 10 percent. During 20 minutes of TM, cortisol levels drop about 30 percent every time. … There are several research studies that have come out and shown significant reduction in medical costs and admission to people who practice TM,” he says. The evidence is there. It’s just a matter of time and the slow wheels of government.”
What about yoga and gym memberships?
Considering the myriad of studies linking exercise to lowering stress levels, is it optimistic to think that insurance will soon cover gym memberships next? Some already do. Many insurance companies have a fitness reimbursement program, covering some or all gym memberships up to a capped price, as long as you can prove you go regularly.
You might be able to right it off on your taxes, too. According to the U.S. Treasury, 14 million families use a flexible spending account (FSA), which is an account you can place tree tax-dollars to pay for medical expenses. While you can’t use your FSA for a gym membership, you can use if for a health activity — if your doctor prescribes it. This can include fitness class fees, if your doctor prescribes you to be more active.
While these may seem merely as perks — and it is pretty awesome to have your gym membership covered by your insurance — the costs of these "perks" are vastly low considering the staggering costs of unmanaged stress. It's due time insurance companies take notice and to get the word out."If insurance companies are going to provide these benefits in an effective way, they need to be sure that they're communicating those benefits clearly to the people who might want to take advantage of them," Palm says. "The process of medical billing itself can be very stressful, and often people aren't sure what their medical bills say or if what they are being charged for is fair and reasonable."
Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmLaurence