Medicaid nearing ‘eye of the storm’ as newly unemployed look for coverage

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/medicaid-nearing-eye-storm-as-newly-unemployed-look-for-coverage?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTXpaa1pEa3pOVGN5T1RnMiIsInQiOiJNbUdDbys5YmFjZDh2MjB2WTd6T0ZRTUg1cGlIYnAyTjNhdzBHdnpEblpZVGxjZEpQM0xPSEFvVG9RdGJQbzdcL21KcmxGV2Vkb1RzWTQ4TnlQQlcxU1BIMXkrZEFMRWwxUDZpTGdpQVlpMVJMR01CRWFDMk1OSGpRSDlLK3RNUTEifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

Medicaid nearing 'eye of the storm' as newly unemployed look for ...

As the coronavirus roils the economy and throws millions of Americans out of work, Medicaid is emerging as a default insurance plan for many of the newly unemployed. That could produce unprecedented strains on the vital health insurance program, according to state officials and policy researchers.

Americans are being urged to stay home and practice “social distancing” to prevent the spread of the virus, causing businesses to shutter their doors and lay off workers.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that more than 6.6 million people signed up for unemployment insurance during the week that ended March 28. This number shattered the record set the previous week, with 3.3 million sign-ups. Many of these newly unemployed people may turn to Medicaid for their families.

Policymakers have often used Medicaid to help people gain health coverage and healthcare in response to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But never has it faced a public health crisis and economic emergency in which people nationwide need its help all in virtually the same month.

“Medicaid is absolutely going to be in the eye of the storm here,” said Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families. “It is the backbone of our public health system, our public coverage system, and will see increased enrollment due to the economic conditions.”

Meeting those needs will require hefty investments―both in money and manpower.

Medicaid—which is run jointly by the states and federal government and covers about 70 million Americans―is already seeing early application spikes. Because insurance requests typically lag behind those for other benefits, the numbers are expected to grow in the coming months.

“We have been through recessions in the past, such as in 2009, and saw what that meant,” said Matt Salo, who heads the National Association of Medicaid Directors. “We are going to see that on steroids.”

The majority of states have expanded their Medicaid programs since 2014 to cover more low-income adults under a provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). That may help provide a cushion in those areas. In the 14 states that have chosen not to expand, many of the newly unemployed adults will not be eligible for coverage.

It’s possible the pandemic could change the decision-making calculus for non-expansion states, Salo said. “The pandemic is like a punch in the mouth.”

But even without expansion in those states, the Medicaid rolls could increase with more children coming into the system as their families’ finances deteriorate. Many states don’t have the resources or systems in place to meet the demand.

“It is going to hit faster and harder than we’ve ever experienced before,” Salo said.

The unique circumstances of social distancing impose new challenges for those whose jobs are to enroll people for coverage. In California, where more than a million people have filed for unemployment insurance since March 13, much of the workforce that would typically be signing people up and processing their paperwork is now working from home, which adds a layer of complexity in terms of accessing files and documents, and can inhibit communication.

“It’s going to be certainly more difficult than it was under the [2008] recession,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director for the County Welfare Directors Association of California. She said that although strides have been made in the past decade to set up better online forms and call centers, it will still be a heavy lift to get people enrolled without seeing them in person.

In some states, the challenges to the system are already noticeable.

Utah, for instance, has seen a 46% increase in applications for Medicaid. (These applications can be for individuals or families.) In March 2019, about 14,000 people applied. This March, it was more than 20,400.

“Our services are needed now more than ever,” said Muris Prses, assistant director of eligibility services for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which processes Medicaid enrollment. The state typically takes 15 days to determine whether someone is eligible, he said, though that will increase by several days because of the surge in applicants and some staff working at home.

In Nevada, where the hotel- and casino-dominated economy has been hit particularly hard, applications for public benefits programs, including food stamps and Medicaid, skyrocketed from 200 a day in February to 2,000 in mid-March, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. The volume of calls to a consumer hotline for Medicaid and health coverage questions is four times the regular amount.

In Ohio, the number of Medicaid applications has already exceeded what’s typical for this time of year. The state expects that figure to continue to climb.

States that haven’t yet seen the surge warned that it’s almost certainly coming. And as layoffs continue, some are already experiencing the strains on the system, including processing times that could leave people uninsured for months, while Medicaid applications process.

For 28-year-old Kristen Wolfe, of Salt Lake City, who lost her job and her employer-sponsored health insurance March 20, it’s a terrifying time.

Wolfe, who has lupus—an autoimmune disorder that requires regular doctor appointments and prescription medication―quickly applied for Medicaid. But after she filled in her details, including a zero-dollar income, she learned the decision on her eligibility could take as long as 90 days. She called the Utah Medicaid agency and, after being on hold for more than an hour, was told they did not know when she would hear back.

“With my health, it’s scary to leave things in limbo,” said Wolfe, who used her almost-expired insurance last week to order 90-day medication refills, just in case. “I am pretty confident I will qualify, but there is always the ‘What if I don’t?’”

Others have reported smoother sailing, though.

Jen Wittlin, 33—who, until recently, managed the now-closed bar in Providence, Rhode Island’s Dean Hotel―qualified for Medicaid coverage starting April 1. She was able to sign up online after waiting about half an hour on the phone to get help answering specific questions. Once she receives a check for unemployment insurance, the state will reassess her income—currently zero―to see if she still qualifies.

“It was all immediate,” she said.

In fact, she said, she is now working to help newly uninsured former colleagues also enroll in the program, using the advice the state gave her.

In California, officials are trying to reassign some employees—who are now working remotely―to help with the surge. But the system to determine Medicaid eligibility is complicated and requires time-intensive training, Senderling-McDonald said. She’s trying to rehire people who’ve retired and relying on overtime from staffers.

“It’s hard to expand this particular workforce very, very quickly by a lot,” she said. “We can’t just stick a new person in front of a computer and tell them to go. They’re going to screw everything up.”

The move away from in-office sign-ups is also a disadvantage for older people and those who speak English as a second language, two groups who frequently felt more comfortable enrolling in person, she added.

Meanwhile, increasing enrollment and the realities of the coronavirus will likely create a need for costly medical care across the population.

“What about when we start having many people who may be in the hospital, in ICUs or on ventilators?” said Maureen Corcoran, the director of Ohio’s Medicaid program. “We don’t have any specific answers yet.”

These factors will hit just as states―which will experience shrinking tax revenue because of the plunging economy—have less money to pay their share of the Medicaid tab.

“It’s all compounded,” said Lisa Watson, a deputy secretary at Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, which oversees Medicaid.

The federal government pays, on average, about 61% of the costs (PDF) for traditional Medicaid and about 90% of the costs for people who joined the program through the ACA expansion. The rest comes from state coffers. And, unlike the federal government, states are constitutionally required to balance their budgets. The financial squeeze could force cuts in other areas, like education, child welfare or law enforcement.

On March 18 (PDF), Congress agreed to bump up what Washington pays by 6.2 percentage points (PDF) as part of the second major stimulus bill aimed at the economic consequences of the pandemic. That will barely make a dent, Salo argued.

“The small bump is good, and we are glad it’s there, but in no way is that going to be sufficient,” he said.

 

 

 

Trump rejects Obamacare special enrollment period amid pandemic

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/31/trump-obamacare-coronavirus-157788?fbclid=IwAR1nbCE7Uwvo2CNi6d6W5NG9zEIQulyh-noy1RXdk_0RJstMM0C5VYJ8mO4

Trump rejects opening ObamaCare special enrollment period amid ...

Before the coronavirus outbreak, nearly 30 million Americans were uninsured and as many as 44 million were under-insured, paying for bare-bones plans with soaring deductibles and copays. Today, millions more Americans will begin losing their employer-based health insurance because they’ve lost their jobs during this pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is still actively trying to repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act in court, which would cause an additional 20 million people to lose insurance *in the middle of a pandemic*.

And today, Trump refused to reopen ACA enrollment to those millions of uninsured Americans for a special enrollment window, leaving them without any affordable options to get covered. People are going to die because they can’t afford to seek treatment or end up saddled with thousands of dollars of medical debt if they do. Remember this the next time someone tries to tell you Medicare for All is too radical.

What do you think?

The Trump administration has decided against reopening Obamacare enrollment to uninsured Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, defying calls from health insurers and Democrats to create a special sign-up window amid the health crisis.

President Donald Trump and administration officials recently said they were considering relaunching HealthCare.gov, the federal enrollment site, and insurers said they privately received assurances from health officials overseeing the law’s marketplace. However, a White House official on Tuesday evening told POLITICO the administration will not reopen the site for a special enrollment period, and that the administration is “exploring other options.”

The annual enrollment period for HealthCare.gov closed months ago, and a special enrollment period for the coronavirus could have extended the opportunity for millions of uninsured Americans to newly seek out coverage. Still, the law already allows a special enrollment for people who have lost their workplace health plans, so the health care law may still serve as a safety net after a record surge in unemployment stemming from the pandemic.

Numerous Democratic-leaning states that run their own insurance markets have already reopened enrollment in recent weeks as the coronavirus threat grew. The Trump administration oversees enrollment for about two-thirds of states.

Insurers said they had expected Trump to announce a special enrollment period last Friday based on conversations they had with officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs HealthCare.gov enrollment. It wasn’t immediately clear why the Trump administration decided against the special enrollment period. CMS deferred comment to the White House.

Trump confirmed last week he was seriously considering a special enrollment period, but he also doubled down on his support of a lawsuit by Republican states that could destroy the entire Affordable Care Act, along with coverage for the 20 million people insured through the law.

People losing their workplace coverage have some insurance options outside of the law’s marketplaces. They can extend their employer plan for up to 18 months through COBRA, but that’s an especially pricey option. Medicaid is also an option for low-income adults in about two-thirds of states that have adopted Obamacare’s expansion of the program.

Short-term health insurance alternatives promoted by Trump, which allow enrollment year-round, is also an option for many who entered the crisis without coverage. Those plans offer skimpier coverage and typically exclude insurance protections for preexisting conditions, and some blue states like California and have banned them or severely restricted them. The quality of the plans vary significantly and, depending on the contract, insurers can change coverage terms on the fly and leave patients with exorbitant medical bills.

Major insurers selling Obamacare plans were initially reluctant to reopen the law’s marketplaces, fearing they would be crushed by a wave of costs from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But the main insurance lobby, America’s Health Insurance Plans, endorsed the special enrollment period roughly two weeks ago while also urging lawmakers to expand premium subsidies to make coverage more affordable for middle-income people.

Congress in last week’s $2 trillion stimulus passed on that request, as well as insurers’ petition for an open-ended government fund to help stem financial losses from an unexpected wave in coronavirus hospitalizations.

Democrats pushing for the special enrollment period are also grappling with the high costs facing many people with insurance despite new pledges from plans to waive cost-sharing. Obamacare plans and a growing number of those offered by employers impose hefty cost-sharing and high deductibles that could still burden infected Americans with thousands of dollar in medical bills.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) on a press call Monday contended that “we also need to have free treatment” after Congress eliminated out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus tests.

“We did the testing, which is now free, and everybody, regardless of their insurance, gets it,” Pallone said. “But that has to be for the treatment as well.”

 

 

 

 

KHN’s ‘What The Health?’: The Affordable Care Act Turns 10

KHN’s ‘What The Health?’: The Affordable Care Act Turns 10

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Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen on SoundCloud.

The past decade for the health law has been filled with controversy and several near-death experiences. But the law also brought health coverage to millions of Americans and laid the groundwork for a shift to a health system that pays for quality rather than quantity.

Yet the future of the law remains in doubt. Many progressive Democrats would like to scrap it in favor of a “Medicare for All” system that would be fully financed by the federal government. Republicans would still like to repeal or substantially alter it. And the Supreme Court recently accepted another case that could invalidate the law in its entirety.

In this special episode of KHN’s “What the Health?” host Julie Rovner interviews Kathleen Sebelius, who was secretary of Health and Human Services during the development, passage and implementation of the health law.

Then Rovner, Joanne Kenen of Politico and Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News, who have all covered the law from the start, discuss the ACA’s past, present and future.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Although the creation of the ACA is often attributed to the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress at the time, work on a health care plan actually began well before then with small-group meetings among stakeholders, congressional hearings across the country and efforts by Sen. Ted Kennedy to galvanize interest. Much of those interactions were bipartisan and included industry leaders too.
  • Despite the vehement Republican opposition to the ACA and its many critical junctures (the death of Kennedy and his replacement by Republican Scott Brown; two tight Supreme Court decisions; and the calamitous debut of the marketplace website, among other issues), the law has proved popular. When Republicans gained control of the White House and Congress, their efforts to repeal the law helped focus consumers’ interest on the law and safeguard it.
  • How will the November election affect the law? If President Donald Trump is reelected, he is unlikely to renew the effort to repeal the law, but that doesn’t mean the assault on the law is over. Efforts to change the ACA could continue through the courts and through administrative rulemaking.
  • If a Democrat is elected, modifications to the law are generally expected to be incremental and perhaps deal with changes such as expanding the number of people getting subsidies and fix some glitches in the law.

 

 

 

Ten Years After: The ACA’s Success in Five Charts

Ten Years After: The ACA’s Success in Five Charts

 

 

 

California accuses healthcare sharing ministry of misleading consumers

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/california-accuses-healthcare-sharing-ministry-of-misleading-consumers/573900/

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Dive Brief:

  • The California Department of Insurance issued a cease and desist order to a major Christian group Wednesday for misleading consumers about their health insurance plans and acting as a payer without proper certification, joining a handful of other states scrutinizing the limited coverage.
  • Deceptive marketing by Aliera Healthcare, which sells health ministry plans, and Trinity, which runs them, led to roughly 11,000 Californians belonging to the unapproved “lookalike” plans that don’t cover pre-existing conditions and other required benefits, with no guarantees their claims will be paid, the state’s insurance regulator said.
  • Healthcare sharing ministries (HCSMs) are organizations where members share a common set of religious or ethical beliefs and agree to share the medical expenses of other members. They’re increasingly controversial, as policy experts worry the low-cost insurance attracts healthier individuals from the broader insurance market, creating smaller and sicker risk pools in plans compliant with the Affordable Care Act.

Dive Insight:

Aliera, founded in 2011 and based in Georgia, and Trinity allegedly trained sales agents to promote misleading advertisements to consumers, peddling products that don’t cover pre-existing conditions, abortion, or contraception. The shoddy coverage also doesn’t comply with the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the ACA.

The deceptive advertising could have pressured some Californians to buy a health sharing ministry plan because they believed they missed the deadline for buying coverage through Covered California, the state’s official insurance marketplace.

“Consumers should know they may be able to get comprehensive coverage through Covered California that will protect their health care rights,” California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said in a statement.

HCSMs, which began cropping up more than two decades ago as a low-cost alternative approach to managing growing medical costs, operate either by matching members with those who need help paying medical bills or sharing costs on a voluntary basis. They’re often cheaper than traditional insurance, but they don’t guarantee payment of claims, rarely have provider networks, provide limited benefits and usually cap payments, which can saddle beneficiaries with unexpected bills.

About 1 million Americans have joined the groups, according to the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries.

At least 30 states have exempted HCSMs from state regulation, according to the Commonwealth Fund, meaning the ministries don’t have to comply with health insurance requirements. California does not exempt the religious-based groups from the state insurance code.

In January, Aliera and its subsidiaries, which includes Trinity, were banned from marketing HCSMs in Colorado after being accused of acting as an unlicensed insurer. One month later, Maryland issued a revocation order against Aliera for trying to sell an unauthorized plan in the state. Earlier this month, Connecticut issued a cease and desist order for conducting an insurance business illegally.

Aliera argues states are limiting the choices available to consumers, telling Healthcare Dive it was “deeply disappointing to see state regulators working to deny residents access to more affordable programs.”

“We will utilize all available opportunities to address the false claims being made about the support and management services we provide to Trinity HealthShare and other health care ministries we represent,” Aliera said.

However, Aliera and Trinity don’t meet the Internal Revenue Code’s definition of a health sharing ministry, according to California’s cease and desist, meaning their beneficiaries don’t meet California’s state individual insurance mandate.

The state can impose a fine of up to $5,000 a day for each day the two continue to do business, along with other financial penalties.

 

 

 

 

US Supreme Court Agrees to Review Affordable Care Act — for the Third Time

US Supreme Court Agrees to Review Affordable Care Act — for the Third Time

Image result for US Supreme Court Agrees to Review Affordable Care Act — for the Third Time

The fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is once again in the hands of the US Supreme Court. On March 2, the court announced that it would hear a case challenging the health law, a wide-ranging measure that “touches the lives of most Americans, from nursing mothers to people eating at chain restaurants,” wrote Reed Abelson, Abby Goodnough, and Robert Pear in the New York Times. This will be the third time the court will rule on the ACA since President Barack Obama signed it on March 23, 2010.Essential Coverage

“The justices will review a federal appeals court decision that found part of the law . . . unconstitutional and raised questions about whether the law in its entirety must fall,” reported Robert Barnes in the Washington Post. He noted that it is one of the first cases accepted for the Supreme Court term beginning October 5, which means a decision is not likely until spring or summer of 2021.

Should the court overturn the ACA, many Americans would lose the benefits afforded under the law. As Dylan Scott wrote in Vox, “everything would go: protections for preexisting conditions, subsidies that help people purchase insurance, the Medicaid expansion.”

Let’s break down each of those categories.

Protections for Preexisting Conditions

Before the ACA, people with preexisting conditions, which included common medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, and cancer, were denied health insurance or charged higher insurance premiums. Important benefits like maternity care and mental health services frequently were carved out of the benefit packages in health plans sold in the individual market — that is, outside of employer-sponsored coverage. An issue brief (PDF) by the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that up to 133 million nonelderly Americans have a preexisting condition.

As Andy Slavitt, the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services under President Obama, wrote on Twitter, examples of being charged more included “$4,270 more for asthma, $17,060 for pregnancy, and $160,510 for metastatic cancer.”

Under the ACA, insurers are no longer allowed to deny coverage or charge higher prices to people with preexisting conditions. But if the Supreme Court rules against the ACA, these protections would vanish.

Medicaid Expansion

A key provision of the ACA is expanded eligibility for enrollment in Medicaid, a federally funded state option adopted so far by 36 states and the District of Columbia. More than 12 million adults with low incomes have gained Medicaid coverage through this provision, and research comparing expansion and nonexpansion states has linked expanded Medicaid access to better health outcomes.

According to the Urban Institute, if the ACA is repealed, “the uninsurance rate across all expansion states would increase from 9% of the nonelderly under current law to 17% under repeal. In nonexpansion states, the uninsurance rate would increase from 15% of the nonelderly to 21%.” Many of the newly uninsured would be the result of losing the Medicaid coverage the ACA provided.

“The uninsured rate for Black Americans would increase from 11% to 20% without Obamacare,” Scott reported. “There would also be a dramatic spike in uninsurance among Hispanics.”

Subsidies to Help People Purchase Insurance

To expand access to affordable health insurance for those who can’t get it through their jobs, the ACA offers federal subsidies to people with low and moderate incomes who buy insurance through the ACA insurance exchanges. The subsidies take the form of premium tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies.

Approximately 9.2 million Americans receive federal subsidies, reported Abelson, Goodnough, and Pear. “On average, the subsidies covered $525 of a $612 monthly premium for customers in the 39 states that use the federal marketplace,” they wrote.

If the ACA is overturned and the subsidies are eliminated, the cost of health insurance would become unaffordable for many of those 9.2 million people, and the uninsured population would soar.

Polls Show Public Support for the ACA

According to the February 2020 KFF Health Tracking Poll, 55% of Americans say they now favor the ACA, a new high compared to approval ratings below 40% as recently as 2016. Today 85% of Democrats express favorable views of the law, compared to 53% of independents and 18% of Republicans.

Though overall support for the health law remains partisan, many of its provisions have broad bipartisan support, KFF staff wrote in Health Affairs. For instance, large majorities of Democrats (94%), independents (88%), and Republicans (77%) have a favorable view of the ACA’s health insurance exchanges, and most Democrats (80%), independents (71%), and Republicans (54%) view the Medicaid expansion favorably.

Rising Health Costs Worsen California’s Coronavirus Threat

The global spread of the novel coronavirus disease known as COVID-19 puts threats to the ACA into perspective. Despite the coverage gains made under the ACA, nearly 28 million Americans remain uninsured, and that number would rise if the law were overturned. As Chris Sloan, associate principal at the consulting firm Avalere Health, told Caitlin Owens in Axios, we “could see uninsured or underinsured patients . . . skipping necessary treatment because they believe they can’t afford it.”

“Some lawmakers are concerned that the tens of millions who are underinsured — Americans with high deductibles or limited insurance — may also be at risk of unexpected expenses as more and more people are exposed to the virus,” Reed Abelson and Sarah Kliff reported in the New York Times.

Kristof Stremikis, director of CHCF’s market analysis and insight team, wrote in a recent blog post, “In an era when the average deductible facing a working family in California now exceeds $2,700, it’s not hard to imagine how many people missed detection and treatment opportunities because they could not afford to pay for them.”

To address some of these concerns, the California Department of Insurance (PDF) and the Department of Managed Health Care (PDF) directed all commercial health plans and Medi-Cal plans to “immediately reduce cost-sharing (including, but not limited to, co-pays, deductibles, or co-insurance) to zero for all medically necessary screening and testing for COVID-19, including hospital, emergency department, urgent care, and provider office visits where the purpose of the visit is to be screened and/or tested for COVID-19.”

Similar policies have been announced by state regulators in Washington and New York, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.