By Ken Burdick
Did you know loneliness poses the same health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? In fact, new research indicates weak social connections and feelings of extreme isolation could shorten a person’s life by 15 years. With more than one-third of U.S. adults age 45 or older indicating they are lonely, we’ve reached a critical number of individuals who are at risk for serious health outcomes.
What makes loneliness a significant health issue?
- Loneliness can increase risk for heart failure.
- Persistent loneliness can reduce lifespan.
- Loneliness can contribute to cognitive decline.
Beyond the health-related impact, social isolation and loneliness also have enormous fiscal implications. Every month, Medicare spends $134 more for socially isolated older adults than those adults who are more connected to their communities. This additional care translates into an estimated $6.7 billion in Medicare spending annually.
What can we do as an industry to address this issue? At WellCare, we are looking at these areas:
- Care in the Home. We must leverage care at home or outside of a clinical setting with support like the Program for All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE), a federal initiative offered through a combination of Medicare and Medicaid funding. The goal is to keep seniors in their homes versus a nursing home. The program also comprises 255 PACE day centers called “PACE without Walls.”
- Social Connections. We need to help members build a stronger community – being connected is one of the leading predictors of extended life.
- Caregiver Support. We must also look at programs to address the impact loneliness is having on caregivers and their ability to assist. Some of the ways WellCare supports caregivers include paid training courses, certifications to enable pay for services and care management support.
- New Technology. We should consider social media communities as an aid for those individuals with low mobility.
- Loneliness Data. We also need processes to capture data around loneliness. For example, as part of WellCare’s onboarding process, we ask members specific questions regarding loneliness and caregiver support. This practice enables WellCare to understand our members better by uncovering mitigating factors and determining more holistic care..
We see positive industry changes through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to expand reimbursement of non-medical benefits for this growing population. Previously, CMS defined supplemental healthcare benefits under narrower guidelines. The new 2019 guidance broadens the definition, which WellCare sees as positive step in allowing health plans to offer more primarily health-related benefits that address social issues such as loneliness.
But what more should be done? Could loneliness become the rallying cry for a targeted public health campaign designed for individuals to act – similar to campaigns that address immunizations or obesity?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Kenneth A. Burdick is the CEO of WellCare Health Plans