Helping make the health care system work for you

Health Highlights: Vaccines and welfare, granola bars and a sleep quiz via Flickr Creative Commons

How do you shop for affordable health care?

Are popular granola bars healthy – or more like candy bars?

Are you a morning lark or a night owl?

We have the answers to these questions - and more - in this week's roundup of KPCC's best consumer-focused health stories.

Shopping for health care: Patient advocates say do your homework, then haggle

I've been collecting tips from experts on how to shop for affordable health care. This week, I got some great advice from patient advocates – people who fight high costs and unfair bills for a living.

They say it boils down to understanding the nitty-gritty of your health plan and asking a lot of questions, like:

  • Is a particular provider or facility considered in-network for my insurance plan?
  • If a doctor says a nurse is going to draw blood, ask which labs are being ordered to avoid unnecessary duplication.
  • If a doctor recommends surgery, ask if there are more conservative alternatives or treatments that could be tried first.
  • If a doctor recommends a prescription, ask if it's a brand-name drug and, if so, if there's an alternative, such as a generic option or a lower dose.


Terminally ill Orange County mom says assisted suicide is a bad idea

Stephanie Packer - 1

Stephanie O'Neill/ KPCC

The Packer family gathers in the kitchen to cook dinner. From left: Jacob, 8; Brian Sr. ;Brian Jr., 11; Savannah, 5; Scarlett, 10; and Stephanie.

Stephanie Packer - 2

Stephanie O'Neill/ KPCC

Stephanie Packer's daily pill regimen.

As the state legislature considers SB 128, which would legalize physician-assisted suicide in California, Impatient is featuring people's stories about how they or a loved one dealt with an end-of-life situation.

Last week, we shared the story of Amber Phillips of Pasadena, who regrets resisting her mother's requests to stop treatment for breast cancer. This week we bring you the story of Stephanie Packer of Orange, who is determined to live as long as possible as she confronts the end of her life.

A terminal diagnosis

It’s lunch time on a recent spring break afternoon and Stephanie Packer is in her kitchen, preparing lunch with her four children.

"Do you want to help?" she asks the eager crowd of siblings gathered tightly around her at the stovetop. 

"Yeah!" yells 5-year-0ld Savannah.


Shopping for health care: Patient advocates say do your homework, then haggle

Thomas Hawk via Flickr Creative Commons

Last week, I shared some tips on how to get affordable health care from David Newman, executive director of the Health Care Costs Institute in Washington, D.C.

As promised, I'm back with more tips. This batch comes from patient advocates – people who fight high costs and unfair bills for a living.

(In case you missed it: Check out this piece from the Los Angeles Times about consumers' increasing reliance on such advocates to help them navigate the health care and insurance systems.)

I found advocates Claire Freeman, Martine Brousse and Lisa Berry Blackstock on the consumer finance website

Understand your plan

First things first: Patient advocate Claire Freeman, of Chino Hills, preaches the importance of understanding the fine points of your health insurance plan.


Health Highlights: Skip physicals, beware breast milk, ban vaccine exemptions?

Jorge Elías via Flickr Creative Commons

This week's Health Highlights help you navigate the health care system, passes on important milk news, and updates the hot bills moving through Sacramento.

Read on for KPCC's top consumer health-related stories of the week.

Breast milk sold online contaminated with cow's milk

Two stories this week urge consumers to beware the beverages they're buying.

Scientists analyzed samples of breast milk ordered online and found about 10 percent of them were "topped off" with cow's milk, reports NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff. In fact, the tainted breast milk contained at least 10 percent cow milk, according to an article in Pediatrics.

"It really is, 'Buyer beware,' " says public health researcher Sarah Keim, who led the current study. "When you are purchasing milk from a source you're not familiar with, you can't tell by looking at it if it's safe. It's really a risky activity that we don't recommend."


Shopping for health care: Have an 'awkward conversation' with your doctor

According to a recent report from the nonprofit organization Public Agenda, an estimated 56 percent of Americans have tried to find out how much a medical procedure would cost them – or their insurer - before getting care.

That number caught my attention, since conventional wisdom says Americans don't shop around for health care. It also raised a question for me: What about the other 44 percent? Why haven't they tried shopping for medical care?

Public Agenda's study provides one explanation: 50 percent of the people who have never checked a price are unsure how to do so.

That finding would probably not surprise David Newman, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Health Care Costs Institute. His group recently launched a website - called - that allows people to compare cost information for common health conditions and services.