Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Short-term health plans skirting ACA-required benefits and protections to be expanded

The Trump administration is proposing to significantly broaden Americans’ ability to rely on short-term health plans that do not comply with the Affordable Care Act’s benefits requirements and consumer protections.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced Tuesday morning that a rewrite of federal rules would extend the time consumers can hold such health plans from three months to 12 months.

The plans were intended until now to be a brief gap-filler for people between jobs or for college students taking a semester off. The administration is attempting to redefine them as part of its strategy to help consumers bypass the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, which President Trump and his aides characterize as expensive failures.

“It’s one step in the direction of providing Americans with health insurance options that are both more affordable and more individualized for families’ circumstances,” Azar said in a conference call with reporters to announce the proposed rule.

Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, echoed that portrayal of the rewrite as health reform. “While in the past these plans have been a bridge, now they can be a lifeline,” she said.

The proposed rule is the second that officials have designed since October, when Trump issued an executive order intended to widen the availability of health plans that skirt important Affordable Care Act insurance provisions.

The order is part of the administration’s strategy to circumvent parts of the sprawling 2010 health-care law — President Barack Obama’s primary domestic legacy — through executive actions. The moves are an alternate route given the Republican-led Congress’s failure last year to dismantle much of the law — although Trump is still urging lawmakers to try again, despite GOP Senate leaders’ reluctance.

In this case, the idea is to make it easier for individuals and small businesses to buy alternative types of coverage with lower prices, fewer benefits and weaker government protections.
If the rule is finalized, consumers would be able to buy — for just under a year at a time — short-term plans that do not have to include the Affordable Care Act’s 10 required health benefits and that can deny coverage or charge more to some customers who are in poor health.

The health officials played down criticism Tuesday by some consumer advocates that the short-term plans will drain healthy people from the Affordable Care Act marketplaces. Verma predicted that “only a very small number” of customers will defect from the federal insurance exchange or similar ones run by states.

Government actuaries predict that the number is likely to be 100,000 to 200,000, said Verma, who added that “the shift will have virtually no impact” on insurance premiums in Affordable Care Act marketplaces. The main people who will buy short-term plans, officials predicted, are some of the 28 million Americans who are uninsured — “the forgotten men and women of the Affordable Care Act,” Azar termed them Tuesday while meeting with reporters for the first time since he was sworn in three weeks ago.

At the moment, federal law does not allow these limited-duration plans to be renewed. But Verma said the administration is asking for suggestions on how the government might start permitting renewal.

Because their coverage can be skimpier than that offered by Affordable Care Act health plans, which are intended for people who cannot get affordable health benefits through a job, short-term plans do not count toward the law’s requirement that most Americans carry health coverage. Verma said that people who buy the limited plans could face federal penalties this year for violating the mandate. But that danger will disappear next year, when enforcement of the mandate will end, under an important element of the massive tax law Congress adopted late last year.

Insurers selling short-term plans would need to include on applications and plan documents clear statements that the coverage does not meet Affordable Care Act requirements.

Azar and Verma did not say when they expect such plans to be available for sale. After a public comment period ends in 60 days, officials will put the rule in final form — perhaps by this spring, Azar said.

Just after New Year’s, the Labor Department took the first step under the president’s order, proposing a regulation to widen access to a form of coverage known as association health plans that have long been praised by conservatives. The rule, still in draft form during its comment period, would reclassify such plans so that they no longer have to include the essential health benefits — including maternity care, prescription drugs and mental health services — that the Affordable Care Act requires of insurance sold to individuals and small businesses. It also would, for the first time, allow individuals to buy them.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, said in a statement Tuesday that “we remain concerned that expanded use of short-term policies could further fragment the individual market, which would lead to higher premiums for many consumers, particularly those with preexisting conditions.”

On Capitol Hill, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and the head of the panel’s health subcommittee, Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.), praised the HHS proposal as “another important step taken by the administration to expand consumer choice, competition and access to health care.”

But the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), and his counterparts on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Richard E. Neal (Mass.), and Education Committee, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (Va.), derided the draft rule, contending that “widespread marketing of these bare bones, junk plans will further destabilize health insurance markets, and will lead to higher premiums for everyone.”

Tom Shores, an insurance agent for 25 years in Boise, Idaho, said he favors affordable alternatives to Affordable Care Act coverage but has noticed that alternatives tend to be more expensive as they become more popular. In Idaho, he said, some insurers have found ways to sell short-term plans for 10 months instead of the federal limit of three months.

“But because so many people are doing that, the cost of the short-term plans are up,” Shores said. “They are not that much of an advantage over the plans in the exchange.”


Monday, February 19, 2018

Idaho Insurer Moves Ahead With Health Plans That Flout Federal Rules

It's barely been two weeks since Idaho regulators said they would allow the sale of health insurance that doesn't meet all of the Affordable Care Act's requirements — a controversial step some experts said would likely draw legal scrutiny and, potentially, federal fines for any insurer that jumped in.
And on Wednesday, Blue Cross of Idaho unveiled a menu of new health plans that break with federal health law rules in several ways, including setting premiums based on applicants' health.

"We're trying to offer a choice that allows the middle class to get back into insurance coverage," said Dave Jeppesen, the insurer's executive vice president for consumer health care.

The insurer filed five plans to the state for approval and hopes to start selling them as soon as next month.

The Blue Cross decision ups the ante for Alex Azar, the Trump administration's new Health and Human Services secretary. Will he use his authority under federal law to compel Idaho to follow the ACA and reject the Blues plans? Or will he allow state regulators to move forward, perhaps prompting other states to take more sweeping actions?

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, even as Blue Cross rolled out its plans, Azar faced such questions. "There are rules," Azar said. "There is a rule of law that we need to enforce."

However, he didn't specifically indicate whether the federal government would step in.

Robert Laszewski, a consultant and former insurance industry executive, says it should. "If Idaho is able to do this, it will mean other ... states will do the same thing," he said. "If a state can ignore federal law on this, it can ignore federal law on everything."

Idaho's move stirs up more issues about the stability of individual insurance markets.

Policy analysts say that allowing lower-cost plans that don't meet the ACA's standards to become more widespread will pull younger and healthier people out of Obamacare, raising prices for those who remain. Supporters say that is already happening, so the lower-cost plans provide more choices for people who earn too much to qualify for subsidies to help them purchase ACA coverage.

Idaho's move to allow such plans, announced in January, drew harsh and swift criticism.

"Crazypants illegal," tweeted Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former attorney with the civil division of the U.S. Department of Justice, who said that states can't pick and choose which parts of federal law to follow. Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University's Center on Health Insurance Reforms, pointed out that health insurers could be liable for sharp fines if they are found to be in violation of the ACA.

But both Idaho regulators and Blue Cross officials say they aren't worried.

Jeppesen said the ACA gives states regulatory authority "to make sure the market works and is stable," and the insurer is simply "following what the state has given us guidance" to do.

Other insurers in Idaho are taking a much more cautious approach, telling The Wall Street Journal they aren't stepping up immediately to offer their own plans.

Laszewski said they are likely waiting to see what legal challenges develop. "If I were running an insurance company, there's no way I would stick my neck out until the high court has ruled in favor of this — and they're not going to," he said.

Jeppesen said his company has consulted with legal experts and is moving ahead with confidence.

The aim is to bring people back into the market, particularly the young, the healthy and those who don't get a tax credit subsidy and can't afford an ACA plan.

For some people — especially younger or healthier applicants — the new plans, which the insurer has named Freedom Blue, cost less per month than policies that meet all ACA rules.

They accomplish that by limiting coverage. If they are allowed to be sold, consumers will need to weigh the lower premiums against some of the coverage restrictions and variable premiums and deductibles, policy experts say.

The plans, for example, will include a "waiting period" of up to 12 months for any pre-existing conditions if the applicant has been without coverage for more than 63 days, Jeppesen said.

Additionally, they cap total medical care coverage at $1 million annually. And premiums are based, in part, on a person's health: The healthiest consumers get rates 50 percent below standard levels, while those deemed unhealthy would be charged 50 percent more.

All those conditions violate ACA rules, which forbid insurers from rejecting coverage of preexisting conditions or setting dollar caps on benefits or higher premiums for people with health problems.

But the rates may prove attractive to some.

Premiums for a healthy 45-year-old, for example, could be as low as $195 a month, according to a comparison issued by the insurer, while a 45-year-old with health problems could be charged $526. In that case, the 45-year old would find a lower price tag — $343 a month — for an ACA-compliant bronze plan.

While Freedom Blues plans cover many of the "essential health benefits" required under the ACA, such as hospitalization, emergency care and mental health treatment, they do not include pediatric dental or vision coverage. One of the five plans doesn't include maternity coverage.

When compared with one of the Blues' ACA-compliant plans — called the Bronze 5500 — the new standard Freedom Blue plan's annual deductibles are a mixed bag.

That's because it has two separate deductibles — one for medical care and one for drugs. If a consumer took only generic drugs, the new plan would be less expensive, according to details provided by the plan. But with a $4,000 deductible for brand-name drugs, the Freedom Blue plan requires more upfront money before full coverage kicks in than the ACA-compliant plan it was compared with.

Jeppesen said the insurer hopes to attract many of the "110,000 uninsured state residents who cannot afford [ACA] coverage."

That's the total number of uninsured people who earn more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level in the state, he said.

Sarah Lueck, senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, cautioned that some of those residents might actually be eligible for subsidies under the ACA, which are available to people earning up to four times as much.

"Many ... could be getting subsidies for more comprehensive coverage through the [ACA-compliant state exchange] and would be better off," Lueck said.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Long Era of Low Health Care Inflation May Be Coming to End

  • Medical price hikes slowed down after the Great Recession
  • Economists warn return to historical patterns is in store
Since the late 2000s Great Recession, historically low increases in health-care prices have helped hold down inflation. That may be about to change.

Hospital prices increased 2.2 percent in December, the fastest rate in four years, according to an analysis by Altarum, a nonprofit health-care research organization. The group analyzes data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources to estimate the underlying prices that health plans and consumers pay for medical goods and services.

While overall medical inflation was restrained last year, the report warns that “we could very well be at the cusp” of a return to a more typical pattern where increases in health-care prices outpace the broader inflation rate.

“We have lots and lots of experience where health-care prices grow more quickly than economy-wide prices,” said Paul Hughes-Cromwick, co-director of sustainable health spending strategies at Altarum. The reversal in recent years “is not normal,” he said, and he doesn’t expect it to last.
In recent days, financial markets have become more concerned about the potential for a faster-than-expected increase in prices throughout the economy. A report showing strong wage gains by U.S. workers last month helped briefly push stocks into a correction, a retreat of more than 10 percent from their recent peak.

Price Hikes Slow 

Until the Great Recession, medical prices usually outpaced inflation.

Source: Altarum analysis of data from BLS and Macroeconomic Advisors

Rising prescription-drug prices have made headlines, but drugs account for only 10 percent of total health spending in the U.S. The bulk of outlays goes to hospitals, doctors, and other professional services. Price increases in those sectors have been restrained, partly because of limits on how much Medicare pays hospitals and physicians under the Affordable Care Act and other legislation.

Slow growth in health-care prices has been dragging down the core price index for personal consumption expenditures, the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco estimated in November. If health inflation matched its pace in the mid-2000s, it would add 0.3 percentage points to the current rate of inflation.

Though health-care inflation is expected to accelerate, “it appears unlikely to return to its prerecession level,” which could moderate overall inflation, the Fed economists wrote. Some of the changes that held down Medicare payments are permanent, and commercial insurers often base their reimbursement rates on Medicare, said Adam Shapiro, a research adviser at the San Francisco Fed.

Like the government, employers have tried to hold down their health costs. They’ve shifted more of the burden onto workers through higher deductibles and cost-sharing. Both the U.S. government and private health plans are experimenting with paying providers based on how well they take care of patients, rather than the volume of services they provide.

At the same time, hospitals and doctors groups are increasingly combining their businesses, giving them greater power to command higher prices.

Prices are just one determinant of overall health-care spending, along with the amount and intensity of care. Health spending accounts for roughly 18 percent of overall U.S. economic activity, the highest in the developed world.

“We’re already devoting too much of our overall economic product to the health sector and not getting a great value for it,” Hughes-Cromwick, the Altarum official, said. Any increase in medical prices will further strain the budgets of governments, employers, and households that pay for it, he said.

(Note: The chart is interactive at the website.) 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Congress just passed a massive budget deal — and it includes some huge changes for Americans' healthcare

  • Congress early Friday morning passed a massive budget deal aimed to fix the US government's cycle of short-term funding bills after a brief shutdown.
  • The plan includes funding for the National Institutes of Health, the opioid crisis, among other health initiatives, totaling almost $20 billion.
  • It also extends the Children's Health Insurance Program for 10 years and closes the Medicare "donut hole" a year earlier than anticipated. 

Congress passed a bipartisan plan on Friday to end a brief government shutdown. 

That plan introduced significant funding and changes for healthcare initiatives and agencies, including funding for the National Institutes of Health, the opioid crisis, among other health initiatives, totaling almost $20 billion.

The Senate and House voted on the deal late Thursday and early Friday morning. Many House members had expressed concerns about the plan, threatening its path forward.

"Ultimately, neither side got everything it wanted in this agreement, but we reached a bipartisan compromise that puts the safety and well-being of the American people first," House Speaker Paul Ryan said.
Some of its healthcare-related initiatives include:
  • An additional $2 billion for the National Institutes of Health. 
  • $6 billion over the next two years to combat the opioid crisis, a big increase from the funding set aside by naming the crisis a "public health emergency.
  • $4 billion for VA hospital and clinic improvements.  
  • A two-year reauthorization of community health centers, with $7 billion in total funding. That would help reinstate the funding the centers — which serve more than 25 million Americans — lost when a key fund expired in September 2017.  
  • $495 million for National Health Service Corps, an organization within the Department of Health and Human Service that helps medical professionals pay for their medical education. 
  • $363 million for teaching health centers.
The plan also includes a few changes to the healthcare system. 
  • It closes the donut hole in Medicare, an aspect of Medicare's prescription drug coverage that left seniors on the hook for a certain amount of prescription drug costs before hitting a yearly limit. The plan closes that hole a year earlier than anticipated, much to the dismay of pharma companies that are now have to bear more of the cost, Axios reports.  
  • It would extend the Children's Health Insurance Program for 10 years. The latest stopgap bill only extended the program for 6 years. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

New Mexico Democrats push allowing Medicaid buy-in coverage

A Democratic-led push to expand health care coverage by allowing almost anyone to buy into Medicaid is gaining ground in New Mexico amid Republican efforts in Washington to dismantle Obamacare.

The state Legislature is considering initial studies and steps toward opening up access to Medicaid services through a fee to individuals and possibly employers.
The concept involves redirecting federal subsidies for coverage in the marketplaces created under former President Barack Obama's health care law to a new category of Medicaid, the program for the poor. It has the backing of a coalition of local public health advocacy groups.

"I think the Republicans in Congress found out when they tried to repeal and totally do away with Obamacare that Americans want a strong public option in their lives for health care," said state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, a sponsor of legislative efforts that call for a study of the costs and benefits of a buy-in plan.

Decisions would be left until at least next year, after Republican Gov. Susana Martinez leaves office.

Proposed federal legislation eventually could allow states like New Mexico to avoid lengthy approvals if they move forward — though none has. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, vetoed a bill last year that would have opened that state's Medicaid program to all residents.

In New Mexico, Rep. Deborah Armstrong says the buy-in concept needs to be explored as an avenue for more affordable health care, while nearly one in 10 residents live without insurance. She acknowledged that premiums offered through the state's competitive exchange are relatively low compared with other states.

"It's still expensive — too expensive — for many of the families in New Mexico, being one of the poorest states in the country," said Armstrong, who also is director of New Mexico's high-risk insurance pool for patients with intensive medical needs.

Armstrong called New Mexico "an ideal state for contemplating these reforms," describing its Medicaid program that contracts with managed care organizations. The ranks of the uninsured have been cut in half since the Martinez administration expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2014 to cover individuals with annual incomes slightly above the federal poverty line.

Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow in the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research organization, said it was unclear how managed care organizations or the state would be able to negotiate lower provider rates to doctors, hospitals and clinics through a Medicaid buy-in program.

"New Mexico's (marketplace) premiums are not terribly high, they're relatively low compared to rest of the country," she said. "I'm not completely sure what they would gain here frankly."

Medicaid buy-in programs are likely to involve some new financial risk for states or managed care companies if premiums and fees fail to cover expenses, while overcollecting defeats efforts at affordability, Blumberg and other analysts say.

Officials at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center have told lawmakers that a buy-in plan is worth studying, noting that even prices in federally subsidized marketplaces are likely to rise as the U.S. government does away with penalties for those who go without insurance.


Editorial: Rising healthcare costs are a cancer, not a tapeworm

As similes go, I have problems with using the lowly tapeworm, a subspecies of the helminth family, to understand the impact of rising healthcare costs.

"The ballooning costs of healthcare act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy," said Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett. The Oracle of Omaha, along with Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co., set the healthcare policy world atwitter with their plan to create a not-for-profit company dedicated to lowering their organizations' overall spend on health.

Let's explore this simile. The tapeworm is a parasite, an unwanted critter that lodges inside its human host. It robs its victim of the nutrients needed to thrive and grow. So far, so good.

Treatment is fairly simple, although hard to achieve in poor countries where helminth infections are endemic. You kill it. To prevent infection, you stamp out modes of transmission or develop a vaccine.

Here's where the simile breaks down. Are the nearly 16 million people laboring in healthcare parasites? Of course not. The healthcare system is a vital cog in our society and a healthy workforce is crucial to its economy.

That's why cancer is the better comparison for the system's unsustainable costs. The system is growing too quickly, like a tumor. To restore health, you have to eliminate the cancer, not the vital organ on which the tumor grows.

As any oncologist will tell you, such treatment is long, complex and filled with difficult choices. And the ultimate outcome is always in doubt.

The immediate reaction from most analysts was that healthcare reform by press release won't get the triumvirate very far. The stocks of insurers, pharmacy benefit managers and for-profit providers took an immediate hit, but most recovered quickly when investors realized, as had another businessman before them, that controlling healthcare costs is complicated.

Advice for the new joint venture poured in from all sides, including from other business groups that have worked for decades on the vexing questions behind their rising costs. Aggregate your buying power; go into the drug distribution business (already on Amazon's radar); promote price and quality transparency; contract directly with providers; start your own provider organization.

Each approach has its champions. And any of those paths, if chosen by the new joint venture, would represent an extension of trends already underway among the thousands of employers who provide coverage for nearly 160 million Americans.

But the question this new group needs to ask is why none have gained traction in the marketplace. None have succeeded in reducing the healthcare growth rate, which nearly every economist agrees is necessary if we're to restore rapid wage growth for average American workers.

The cancer simile is helpful here, too. The latest advances in oncology use drugs that target specific mutations. But those drugs cannot be developed until the mutations that are responsible for the uncontrolled growth of a tumor are identified.

Here are just a few of the unresolved questions about the proper tumor targets in healthcare. Is more competition the solution to provider consolidation, high prices and high physician salaries? Or is fee-for-service medicine and high variation in quality and utilization the proper target?

Are middlemen-PBMs and group purchasing organizations-driving drug and device prices to unsustainable heights? Or has a dysfunctional innovation system turned every new drug and even decades-old generics into price-gouging opportunities?

A correct diagnosis is the prerequisite for a proper cure. One place for this new venture to start is by taking a strong stand against high-deductible health plans, which are like opioids. They merely mask the pain of employers' rising costs by shifting them onto the backs of their employees, while undermining health in the process.

It will be interesting to watch what approach this new venture takes. Some fresh thinking from the business community on these issues would be welcome.

Unnecessary Medical Care: More Common Than You Might Imagine

It's one of the intractable financial boondoggles of the U.S. health care system: Lots and lots of patients get lots and lots of tests and procedures that they don't need.

Women still get annual cervical cancer testing even when it's recommended every three to five years for most women. Healthy patients are subjected to slates of unnecessary lab work before elective procedures. Doctors routinely order annual electrocardiograms and other heart tests for people who don't need them.

That all adds up to substantial expense that helps drive up the cost of care for all of us. Just how much, though, is seldom tallied. So, the Washington Health Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to making care safer and more affordable, decided to find out.

The group scoured the insurance claims from 1.3 million patients in Washington state who received one of 47 tests or services that medical experts have flagged as overused or unnecessary.

What the group found should cause both doctors, and their patients, to rethink that next referral. In a single year:
  • More than 600,000 patients underwent a treatment they didn't need, treatments that collectively cost an estimated $282 million.
  • More than a third of the money spent on the 47 tests or services went to unnecessary care.
  • 3 in 4 annual cervical cancer screenings were performed on women who had adequate prior screenings – at a cost of $19 million.
  • About 85 percent of the lab tests to prep healthy patients for low-risk surgery were unnecessary – squandering about $86 million.
  • Needless annual heart tests on low-risk patients consumed $40 million.
Susie Dade, deputy director of the alliance and primary author of the report released Thursday, said almost half the care examined was wasteful. Much of it comprised the sort of low-cost, ubiquitous tests and treatments that don't garner a second look. But "little things add up," she said. "It's easy for a single doctor and patient to say, 'Why not do this test? What difference does it make?' "

ProPublica has spent the past year examining how the American health care system squanders money—often in ways that are overlooked by providers and patients alike. The waste is widespread – estimated at $765 billion a year by the National Academy of Medicine, about a fourth of all the money spent each year on healthcare.
The waste contributes to health care costs that have outpaced inflation for decades, making patients and employers desperate for relief. This week Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan rattled the industry by pledging to create their own venture to lower their health care costs.

Wasted spending isn't hard to find once researchers—and reporters— look for it. An analysis in Virginia identified $586 million in wasted spending in a single year. Minnesota looked at fewer treatments and found about $55 million in unnecessary spending.

Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a professor at The Dartmouth Institute who writes books about overuse, said the findings come back to "Economics 101." The medical system is still dominated by a payment system that pays providers for doing tests and procedures. "Incentives matter," Welch said. "As long as people are paid more to do more they will tend to do too much."

Dade said the medical community's pledge to "do no harm" should also cover saddling patients with medical bills they can't pay. "Doing things that are unnecessary and then sending patients big bills is financial harm," she said.

Officials from Washington's hospital and medical associations didn't quibble with the alliance's findings, calling them an important step in reducing the money wasted by the medical system. But they said patients bear some responsibility for wasteful treatment. Patients often insist that a medical provider "do something," like write a prescription or perform a test. That mindset has contributed to problems like the overuse of antibiotics – one of the items examined in the study.
And, the report may help change assumptions made by providers and patients that lead to unnecessary care, said Jennifer Graves, vice president for patient safety at the Washington State Hospital Association. Often a prescription or technology isn't going to provide a simple cure, Graves said. "Watching and waiting" might be a better approach, she said.

To identify waste, the alliance study ran commercial insurance claims through a software tool called the Milliman MedInsight Health Waste Calculator. The services were provided during a one-year period starting in mid-2015. The claims were for tests and treatments identified as frequently overused by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation's Choosing Wisely campaign. The tool categorized the services one of three ways: necessary, likely wasteful or wasteful.

The report's "call to action" said overuse must become a focus of "honest discussions" about the value of health care. It also said the system needs to transition from paying for the volume of services to paying for the value of what's provided.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom based in New York. You can follow Marshall Allen on Twitter:@marshall_allen