High-Deductible Health Insurance Plan Enrollees Not Necessarily Savvy Health Care Price Shoppers

People who choose to have high-deductible health insurance plans are often regarded as savvy health care price shoppers. A new study proves this notion wrong as there is more to these people than being practical patients.

While high-deductible insurance plans have cheaper premiums, enrollees usually have to shed more out-of-pocket costs when the need for medical care arises. With this, researchers believe that these patients tend to spend less by shopping around for healthcare providers that offer the lowest price. The new study, however, does not necessarily reflect this.

The results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association show that high-deductible insurance holders avail lesser health care services because they face higher costs.

“Simply increasing a deductible, which gives enrollees skin in the game, appears insufficient to facilitate price shopping,” the researchers wrote.

High-deductible and traditional plan holders equally price shop for providers and both have similar attitudes when it comes to pricing and service quality.

The researchers performed their study by surveying 1,800 U.S. insurers aged 18 to 64 years old. Approximately 1,000 of these participants had high-deductible plans and about 852 had other policies.

The results of the investigations show that 60 percent of high-deductible plan holders think that there is a wide discrepancy between health care costs and quality among different providers. About 17 percent believe that doctors who charge higher can provide better services and about 71 percent think that it is important to consider out-of-pocket costs when choosing a doctor.

Surprisingly, the results for other plan holders did not differ significantly.

“We thought that we would see greater price shopping, we didn’t expect to find no difference at all,” says co-author Neeraj Sood from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

In another study, published online in the journal Medical Care, researchers found that high-deductible insurance holders were less likely to undergo imaging tests. A difference of 1.8 points was noted between these patients and those who have other health insurance plans.

The rise of subscription to high-deductible health plan has partially been influenced by the notion that cost-sharing obligations will drive enrollees to shop for health care. If price shopping is to be considered as a vital part of the policy goal, then there is a great need for patients to have better access to price information and novel strategies to engage enrollees

Largest Health Insurance Company Announces New Rules For Hysterectomy Coverage

UnitedHealth Group, which is the largest health insurance company in the U.S., has announced new rules for hysterectomy coverage.

Hysterectomy involves surgical removal of the uterus and may sometimes also involve removal of the fallopian tubes, cervix and ovaries. Around 500,000 hysterectomies are performed each year in the U.S., which makes the medical procedure one of the most common amongst U.S. women. The reasons for hysterectomies range from fibroids, pelvic pain or endometriosis.

Recently, UnitedHealth announced tighter coverage rules for hysterectomies procedures. The health insurers reveal that from Apr. 6 this year, healthcare professionals and facilities will have to inform the company in advance before performing certain hysterectomies. UnitedHealth has also revealed that it will not approve the procedure if believed medically unnecessary.

Market observers believe that UnitedHealth’s tighter coverage rules are mainly a result of the problems that arise from a tool called laparoscopic power morcellators, which is often used for hysterectomies. The device was previously linked for the spread of undiagnosed cancer cells in patients.

In April 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also released a statement that discouraged the use of morcellators for a hysterectomy procedure.

“The FDA’s primary concern as we consider the continued use of these devices is the safety and well-being of patients,” said William Maisel, deputy director for science and chief scientist at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “There is no reliable way to determine if a uterine fibroid is cancerous prior to removal.”

FDA also suggested that patients should discuss the benefits and the risks involved with the use of morcellators for hysterectomies with their doctors.

UnitedHealth also revealed that the new coverage rules do not apply to vaginal hysterectomies, a procedure when the uterus is removed via the vagina. Vaginal hysterectomies are normally conducted on an outpatient basis.

The FDA also recommends vaginal hysterectomy in comparison to abdominal or laparoscopic hysterectomies. The FDA suggests that vaginal hysterectomy involves fewer complications and also yields better results.

However, many doctors prefer laparoscopic, which is less invasive and requires a small incision in comparison to abdominal hysterectomies. The recovery time following an abdominal hysterectomy is longer when compared to laparoscopic hysterectomies.

Life Insurance Company To Offer Coverage For HIV Patients

Life insurance is finally being offered to people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as their life expectancies are seen to be longer than previously thought – and may in fact may be closer to those of uninfected individuals.

Prudential Financial Inc. partnered with AEQUALIS, a financial startup serving HIV patients after researching data on HIV/AIDS, such as medical underwriting and life expectancy. AEQUALIS will manage the insurance application process and provide details to insurance agents and consumers.

The announcement came Tuesday during the observance of World AIDS Day.

“People with HIV (have) much longer life expectancies than insurance companies gave them credit for,” said Bill Grant, co-founder of AEQUALIS.

According to Grant, HIV-positive individuals were unfairly ignored by the life insurance market –  denied life insurance coverage.

The coverage, coming in the form of convertible 10- or 15-year policies, is the first of its kind to be publicly announced by a major American insurance company, showing that HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was widely believed to be, but instead a chronic yet manageable condition.

In a statement, Mike McFarland, vice-president of underwriting for Prudential, said the advances in successfully treating HIV patients that allows them to offer life insurance is a “significant step in the right direction.”

Statistics show that HIV-positive people are indeed living longer; some patients in the U.S. and Canada diagnosed at a young age can now survive into their 70s. While the cure is still unknown, patients have improved access and adherence to drug therapy.

In 2013, research showed that a 20-year-old who is just diagnosed with HIV and who begins therapy right away can expect to live for another 50 years.

Dr. Michelle Cespedes of NYC’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine pointed to new therapies for this development, as well as the effective treatment of diseases linked to HIV and aging. “There are more and more clinical trials looking at how we can intervene on these comorbidities,” she said.

For POZ Magazine editor-in-chief Oriol Gutierrez, mental health is also a crucial aspect to address for long-term survival, particularly of those who survived the worst of the HIV epidemic a couple of decades before.

Gutierrez said there is now “a lot of focus on resurrecting support groups for survivors.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that over 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. About 50,000 new cases of the virus are diagnosed every year.


Cloud Computing, Prime Membership Boost Amazon Earnings

Amazon.com Inc. posted strong growth in the first quarter of 2016, fueled by its cloud services and strong North American e-commerce sales driven in part by its Prime membership.

Incurring its biggest-ever net income, the company said its sales in the first three months of the year rose 28 percent to $29.1 billion – including a 64 percent climb at its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services. First-quarter net income was $513 million or $1.07 per share.

Amid declining more than 10 percent this year, Amazon stocks soared hours after the statement was released on April 28, reaching up to $682.80 in extended trading.

The news is seen to help thwart any concerns on profitability, as investors are said to be watching how founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is balancing “ambitious spending” with the aim for consistent profits. Operating expenses increased by one-fourth as Amazon continues to invest in expanding its U.S. warehouse network, as well as creating new AWS-powering data centers.

“This allays investor fears that Amazon has embarked on another aggressive investment cycle tied to logistics,” analyst Victor Anthony of Axiom Capital Management said in a Bloomberg report.

Moreover, AWS exhibited impressive double-digit growth amid competition from Google and Microsoft, earning $604 million in profit on $2.57 billion in sales. This translated to a 64 percent year-over-year growth.

Based on this performance the cloud computing unit could rival the size of stand-alone firms such as PayPal, and even post double the yearly revenue of Yahoo. Analyst Charlie O’Shea of Moody’s pinpointed margin as the unit’s more impressive metric.

“[It] roughly double to 23.5 percent, generating over $600 million, or roughly 60 percent, of Amazon’s total operating income,” he explained in a USA Today report.

Another major growth driver in Amazon’s North American sales – accounting for 58 percent of its total sales – is the Prime membership, where customers pay $99 a year for free two-day delivery, music and video streaming and other perks. In a continued push for the service, Bezos said in his annual letter to investors that he wants Prime to be such a massive deal that it would be “irresponsible” to forego membership.

Content emerges as one of Amazon’s major persuasions pushing Prime forward, according to its Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky during the earnings call. He said they will be raising their spending in that area in the upcoming quarters.

Prime is also enjoying overseas success as the company expands in territories like Europe and Japan. Olsavsky added that the strategy – which ensures customers are locked in and converted from occasional buyers to loyalists – is no longer just a North American model.

Amazon continues to bank on its fast delivery options, recently offering free two-hour delivery in big U.S. cities. It is also beefing up its restaurant delivery, recently introducing free one-hour delivery from local food establishments in 33 zip codes across San Francisco.

The company, which historically did not focus much on profit, but has posted data on it for four succeeding quarters, is now projecting second-quarter revenue of $28 billion to $30.5 billion.

$1 Billion: How Much Alibaba Will Invest In Cloud Computingw

China’s Alibaba is planning to invest a massive $1 billion into its Aliyun cloud computing business in the next three years.

With this notable investment, Alibaba’s Aliyun is gunning for Amazon and its Web Services division, heating up the competition between the two e-commerce companies.

Analysts estimate the global cloud computing market is worth roughly $20 billion, and Alibaba wants a bigger piece of the pie. The company announced that its investment will help set up new data centers for Aliyun in various regions across the globe, including Singapore, the Middle East, Europe and Japan. Moreover, the company also intends to sign business deals with enterprise technology and telecom providers in those markets.

So far, Amazon and Alibaba have not been direct competitors in e-commerce, i.e. their core business, outside of China. The upcoming global expansion of Aliyun, however, will pit the company against Amazon Web Services (AWS), which has proved to be an important and lucrative business division for Amazon.

Simon Hu, Aliyun president and former chief of Alibaba’s microfinance arm, said in an interview that Aliyun has focused on the Chinese market so far, but now, after six years, it has the “technological maturity” to go up against U.S. cloud services such as AWS, Microsoft and IBM, according to Reuters.

The executive further reveals Aliyun’s goal to soar past Amazon in four years, regardless of whether it overtakes the Seattle-based company in terms of technology, customers or global scale.

“Amazon, Microsoft and others have already laid the groundwork for us by educating the markets about cloud in the U.S. and Europe, so we have an even better opportunity to join in the competition.”

“This additional US$1 billion investment is just the beginning; our hope is for Aliyun to continually empower customers and partners with new capabilities, and help companies upgrade their basic infrastructure,” added Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang in a press release. “We want to enable businesses to connect directly with consumers and drive productivity using data. Ultimately, our goal is to help businesses successfully transition from an era of information technology to data technology.”

Nevertheless, Aliyun will face some fierce competition along the way and will have to go up against notable technology players. Back in 2014, Amazon was at the top of the global cloud infrastructure with a hefty 28 percent share, while Microsoft, IBM and Google were next in line with 10 percent, 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

It remains to be seen whether Aliyun’s plans to overtake Amazon will materialize, but Alibaba is willing to pour $1 billion into the business and take it global, with AWS as its main target.

Cloud Companies Concerned About Venom Bug Effect On Data Centers

Security vendor CrowdStrike revealed details on a vulnerability that was discovered in a popular virtualization software that allows an attacker to escape a compromised virtual machine while obtaining access to the host through code execution, causing the entire cloud to be vulnerable.

The detected flaw was identified as Virtualized Environment Neglected Operations Manipulation (Venom), a type of bug in an open-source code library otherwise known as QEMU. The latter is said to be popularly used in cloud computing. It has the capacity to emulate the floppy disk software that is common among very old machines.

“Venom could put company secrets or sensitive information at risk, potentially impacting thousands of organizations and millions of end users,” says CrowdStrike on its official site.

Venom is the latest of the colorfully-named flaws that attack popular open-source products. In 2014, Shellshock and Heartbleed bugs were also reported. The latter, after popping up in a widely utilized open-source product, has prompted the nonprofit Linux Foundation to collect money from a number of technology firms in a security auditing campaign of open-source projects. These include companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Cisco and others.

“This virtualization means we often cannot tell which other outside organizations might have their workloads running on the same physical server as our systems,” says CTO Mike Lloyd of RedSeal in an email. “In principle an attack on their systems in the shared cloud infrastructure could spill over into ours, causing a potential domino effect.”

Luckily, Venom is somewhat different from Heartbleed since patches for several platforms are said to already be available. More patches are also about to be released in the not so distant future. Some of the released patches include those that came from F5, Ubuntu Linux, Suse, Red Hat, QEMU, FireEye, Citrix and Xen Project.

“It’s serious, but not Heartbleed serious. There are no known in-the-wild attacks and a patch is available,” says Karl Sigler, threat intelligence manager at Trustwave.

Tod Bearsley, Research Manager at Rapid7, added that those that were seriously affected have turned to hosted VPS services.

In other words, hackers can trick servers to place a duplicate of their programs into memory areas that are usually inaccessible. When this is achieved, hackers would be able to pass security protections and eventually run the programs with no obstruction.

“The patch should be treated with very high priority, and is well worth a brief service interruption in almost all cases,” says Lloyd.

Cloud computing is the future but not if security problems persist

Cloud computing has received a lot of popularity in the last few years and market observers believe it to be the future, but not if security problems persist.

For people who are not familiar with cloud computing, it is the practice that involves usage of network servers that are remotely located. Users can access the remote servers via the Internet to manage, store and process relevant data, rather than on the personal computer of a local server.

Many businesses are using cloud computing that usually turns out to be cheaper, faster and easy to maintain. Now, not only businesses but regular Internet users are also using cloud computing services such as Google Docs, Dropbox and more to access their files whenever and wherever they want.

Cloud computing has accelerated with the wide use of the Internet services as well as development of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Many people carry their portable devices when not on their desk and easily access their documents, media and pictures on cloud storage via the Internet.

With the development in technology market, experts are also worried about the increased security needs for cloud computing.

“There’s no more debate,” says Rajat Bhargava, co-founder of JumpCloud, a cloud security startup. “When you don’t own the network, it’s open to the rest of the world, and you don’t control the layers of the stack, the cloud – by definition – is more insecure than storing data on premises.”

Some members of Open Data Center Alliance, a consortium that includes top IT companies of the world such as SAP, Infosys, Deutsche Telekom, Disney and more, are believed to be cloud enthusiasts. However, a recent survey of the members reveal that around 66 percent of the consortium’s members are concerned regarding data security, which is deferring their efforts for cloud computing. A similar survey done in previous years indicated that around 80 percent of the members were skeptic about entering cloud computing due to security concerns.

Security issues over cloud computing is definitely one of the major concerns that many companies are trying to recognize. However, some companies are also concerned about regulatory issues.  Market observers say that 47 percent of the participants in the survey worry that they will be tied to one provider of cloud storage.

Amazon Web Services is a prominent cloud computing provider in the industry. The department is the fastest growing department of Amazon. However, in Oct. 2012, services failed for a while. Users who had their files stored with Amazon Web Services were unable to access their documents.

Experts opine that cloud computing is at its nascent stage and providers will have to address issues related security, availability, and more to expand in the future.