Two reports came out this week that drew my attention -- one, from the U.S. Census Bureau, reported that the number of Americans without health insurance has reached 49.9 million, while the other cited a study that found that people with consistently high health care costs experienced a 28 percent cumulative decrease in physician fees after an average of five years practicing meditation.
The latter study also came out Tuesday in the September/October 2011 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion. It compared the changes in physician costs for 284 consistent high-cost participants—142 Transcendental Meditation practitioners with 142 non-practitioners, over five years in Quebec, Canada.
According to this peer-reviewed article on the study, chronic stress causes illness -- some say it's the No. 1 cause -- which leads to doctors' visits. Meanwhile, a small number of people account for the majority of health care costs. In the U.S., the highest spending 10 percent in the general population incurred 60 percent to 70 percent of total medical expenditures annually. In the Medicare population, the highest spending 5 percent incurred 43 percent of total Medicare costs, and the highest spending 25 percent of seniors accounted for 85 percent of total expenses.
The article has more data about the study and the statistical percentages. It also cites previous studies that found meditators had dramatic and widespread reductions in health expenses, like this: An 11-year, cross-sectional study in Iowa found that subjects age 45 and over who practiced the TM technique had 88 percent fewer hospital days compared with controls. Their medical expenditures were 60 percent below the norm.
Other studies, including randomized clinical trials, indicate the TM technique can improve physical and mental health, decrease tobacco use, reduce substance abuse, and decrease other unhealthy habits and risk factors that lead to chronic disease and costly treatments.
“This article has major policy significance for saving Medicare and Medicaid without cutting benefits or raising taxes,” said the paper’s author, Robert E. Herron, Ph.D.
“Almost no intervention for cost containment has decreased medical expenditures by 28 percent over five years from a baseline. Now, it may be possible to rescue Medicare and Medicaid by adding coverage for learning the Transcendental Meditation technique.”
To the best of my knowledge, there's nothing that makes Transcendental Meditation significantly better at reducing stress than other types of meditation.
Now back to that census data, as reported by the Associated Press:
The share of Americans without health coverage is now 16.3 percent — or 49.9 million people — mostly due to continued losses of employer-provided health insurance in the weakened economy.
Congress passed a health overhaul last year to address rising numbers of the uninsured. While the main provisions don't take effect until 2014, one aspect taking effect in late 2010 allowed young adults to be covered under their parents' health insurance until age 26.
The uninsured rate for adults 18 to 24 actually declined last year, from 29.3 percent to 27.2 percent, noted Brett O'Hara, chief of the Health and Disability Statistics branch at the Census Bureau. That was the only age group that posted a decrease, and he said “ the law change certainly could be a factor.”
Last year saw a third year of increases in Americans without health insurance, lifting the total number to the highest since the government began tracking the figures in 1987. The number of people covered by employment-based health plans declined from 170.8 million to 169.3 million, although those losses were partially offset by gains in government health insurance such as Medicaid and Medicare.
Taken together, these studies that the value of a meditation practice is almost quantifiable, on a societal level if not an individual one. (I've practiced meditation daily for more than five years and visit lots of doctors but mostly for maintenance or continuing treatment; I'm fully functional -- and I've no idea how I would be if I didn't meditate. Meditation practice = reduced stress = lower health care costs.
Note that I said "meditation practice." You can't do it once and stop because you still feel stressed. You have to keep it up.
What's the next step? Maybe the government can mandate that health insurance pay for ongoing meditation programs. Or maybe the insurance companies, which are strongly attuned to the bottom line, will do that first. Maybe meditation instructors will be highly sought after with competing companies offering larger and larger compensation packages.