The annual financial burden of health illiteracy costs between $106 and $238 billion. This is enough money to cover the 47 million uninsured people in America.
That metric, and many other insights, were published this week in an important new report called, Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy.

The report was written by Dr. John Vernon, a professor of finance at the University of Connecticut, and three colleagues from the University of Central Florida, George Washington University, and an executive from Pfizer. This research was sponsored by Pfizer, which has been promoting health literacy as part of the “Ask Me Three” campaign, a program of the Partnership for Clear Health Communication at the National Patient Safety Foundation.

Health literacy isn’t the same as literacy, per se; health literacy is the ability to read and comprehend literature that is health related. Thus, many more people are health illiterate than simply illiterate.

The report offers two broad health policy recommendations.

1. Eliminate disparities in health insurance coverage.
2. Improve how health plans and providers interact with patients.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Health literacy is a profound driver of escalating costs in US health care. The Ask Me Three campaign offers actionable suggestions on how patients can more engagingly and effectively interact with health providers and plans; the three key questions for a patient to ask are,

1. What is my main problem?
2. What do I need to do?
3. Why is it important for me to do this?

Providers (especially physicians) can download patient-friendly materials from the website to share with their patients. Plans can join the movement and get smarter about helping their enrollees to become better, more enlightened health care consumers.

Cobbling together a new plan for financing national health reform without attending to this basic, uber-health issue won’t solve the problem of getting consumers to be able to better manage their health care, outcomes, or costs.