October 17th, 2008
01:12 PM ET

Checking the candidates' health insurance claims

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

As the presidential election draws near, one issue people have been talking about a lot is health care. The candidates talked about it for a good chunk of the recent debate, and most people are pretty interested in what it all means. The problem is, hardly anyone understands it. I wanted to use this blog to share some of what we uncovered.

First of all, Senators McCain and Obama throw out wildly different numbers. McCain says the average cost of health insurance in this country is around $5,800 for the average family, while Obama cites the figure as closer to $12,000 (listen to the candidates in their own words).

Well, according to AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans), the results of a study about health care costs put the national average cost of a family health care plan at $5,799. That seems to be the number McCain is using. There are a couple important caveats. Your cost of health care is very dependent on where you live. For example, the cost of a family plan in Massachusetts is over $16,000. In Wisconsin, the cost is closer to $3,000 (read study results).  McCain does say that under his plan, consumers will be able to buy health care from different programs so, even if you live in Massachusetts, you would be able to buy a Wisconsin plan. The other caveat is health care costs are incredibly dependent on something known as pre-existing conditions. If you have an already diagnosed illness, it can make getting health care much more expensive, if not impossible.

According to our digging, Obama’s number of $12,000 seems to come from a Kaiser Family foundation survey (read survey). That survey looked specifically at the cost of employer-based coverage, not individual family plans. The reason the number is so much higher is because employers “pool” their employees together. People who have existing conditions are pooled with those who are healthy, and that drives up health care premiums overall.

In a way, they are both right – but they are talking about very different things. In case you are curious, as things stand now – 62 percent of people have employer based coverage, 15 percent are insured through the government, 5 percent have individual plans and 18 percent are uninsured.

Obama wants to create a plan that allows all consumers to have access to the same sort of plans he has as a U.S. senator. With so many people joining such a national plan, the Obama campaign is banking on health care costs coming down overall. He also wants to mandate that every child have health care insurance.

With McCain’s plan, there is a $5,000 tax credit for families, which would cover all but $800 of the average health care plan. And, they tell us if you currently have employer-based coverage, you could still use the credit to pay for the taxes you begin paying on your health care benefit or to offset co-pays and out-of-network costs.

Have you considered all this and if so, which plan do you like more? Why?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.