The answer, to me: Mastering the new health care system that kicks into high gear in 2014, especially its insurance coverage options, and the customer service labyrinth.
It will also require considerable time and energy, and perseverance, not to mention good communication and documentation skills.
A teaser to the upcoming reforms can be found when navigating the current health care customer service system. Medical billing issues, clunky websites, misplaced prescription drug orders, health care plan price comparisons -- this is part of the trench warfare that can bring on headaches at the same time doctors counsel the importance of stress relief.
For example, it recently took me six phone calls and time-consuming conversations that stretched over eight days with a doctor and multiple customer service representatives and managers to straighten out a simple mailing mistake on a prescription for my college-student son.
The mistake -- mailing the package to our home address, rather than to the college -- was theirs, not mine.
Around the same time, there was a head-scratching encounter trying to fill prescriptions for another family member. At one point in a phone call that lasted more than two hours, we were told the physician could always fax the script and then call to make sure it was received; so much for electronic record-keeping and time-saving efficiencies.
With conflicting information from service representatives, the supplies landed on our doorstep. What was odd? In the last phone encounter, we were told the meds couldn't be refilled for several more weeks.
You could say I've had my share of consumer experiences with health care and, honestly, the good has outweighed the bad. But these recent examples didn't give me confidence that the health care administrative system will be prepared to handle the tens of millions of newly insured coming into the program, including many young adults out of the house and on their own.
While I don't have any hard data to back up my impressions, I've heard loud and clear from many other people who have shared similar tales.
Because we're being encouraged to take greater control of our health care, it will be imperative for young consumers to become familiar with how the health care system works as they edge closer to being on their own.
What can be done?
--Learn the lingo. Parent, heads-up! Along with the topics of car insurance, credit card debt, college loans and taxes, make sure to include health care and insurance. It starts with the basics: What's a deductible? What's a premium? What's the difference between generics and brand name drugs? Now health care reform has added to the language -- health exchanges. Maybe a game can be invented to teach all this stuff.
--Pay attention to correspondence. This piggybacks on the first tip. Whether it's a billing statement from the doctor or an email message from the mail-order pharmacy, it should become best practice for your early 20-something to read everything carefully.
--Coach them up. Don't allow your son or daughter to become a powerless victim. They need to develop their assertiveness genes when tackling everything from billing issues to questioning coverage options and medical procedures. Before calling customer service, talk through the questions that need to be asked, and get in the habit of taking notes, including names and direct callback numbers that can help you control the outcome.
Like most things, experience is the best teacher. But, if anybody knows of a good smartphone app that can help you manage your health care, including dealing with customer service issues, let me know.
(Questions, comments, column ideas? Send an e-mail to srosen(AT)kcstar.com or write to him at The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.)