Is healthcare still recession-proof?

https://mailchi.mp/3390763e65bb/the-weekly-gist-june-24-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

A recent conversation with a health system CFO made us realize that a long-standing nugget of received healthcare wisdom might no longer be true. For as long as we can remember, economic observers have said that healthcare is “recession-proof”—one of those sectors of the economy that suffers least during a downturn. The idea was that people still get sick, and still need care, no matter how bad the economy gets. But this CFO shared that her system was beginning to see a slowdown in demand for non-emergent surgeries, and more sluggish outpatient volume generally.

Her hypothesis: rising inflation is putting increased pressure on household budgets, and is beginning to force consumers into tougher tradeoffs between paying for daily necessities and seeking care for health concerns. This is having a more pronounced effect than during past recessions, because we’ve shifted so much financial risk onto individuals via high deductibles and cost-sharing over the past decade.

There’s a double whammy for providers: because the current inflation problems are happening in the first half of year, most consumers are nowhere near hitting their deductibles, leading this CFO to forecast softer volumes for at least the next several months, until the usual “post-deductible spending spree” kicks in.

Combined with the tight labor market, which has increased operating costs between 15 and 20 percent, this inflation-driven drop in demand may have hospitals and health systems experiencing their own dose of recession—contrary to the old chestnut.

Do Medicare Advantage Networks Vary by Plan within Contract?

Medicare Advantage (MA) is the private insurance alternative to traditional Medicare. MA organizations contract with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to offer eligible beneficiaries residing in a defined geographic service area (a collection of counties) a selection of private plans. Insurers may offer multiple plans across different plan types under one contract. The service area is defined at the contract-level, and for most MA plans, service areas can include a single county or a collection of multiple counties. (There are other types of plans for which there are constraints on the boundaries of the service area, but these don’t account for very much of MA enrollment.)

As MA-offering insurers contract with CMS, they establish networks that govern patient liability for seeing in- and out-of-network providers. Consequently, plans will vary in their cost-sharing structures and benefit designs as they assume different levels of liability for the cost of out-of-network providers. Overall, plans will cover the cost of care (less copays and deductibles) for patients seeing providers in-network, and certain plan types may require that patients pay more for out-of-network services or receive referrals/prior authorization from primary care providers (PCP) to see specialists.

The most common plan types offered by MA insurers include the following:

  • Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs) are considered the most flexible type of plan in providing access to care and covering it out-of-network. PPO enrollees can use out-of-network providers for covered services without a referral from a PCP, albeit at greater cost to them than in-network providers.
  • Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), in comparison to PPOs, are more restrictive plans that provide less access to care and less coverage for out-of-network providers, with the exception of emergency, urgent, and dialysis care. HMO members are required to select a PCP and must get authorization for most specialty services. For any out-of-network services received, the patient bears the full cost, up to the traditional Medicare rate.
  • Health Maintenance Organization Point-of- Service (HMO-POS) are a hybrid plan between PPOs and HMOs. Like an HMO, members must select a PCP for care coordination, but they do not need a referral for specialty services. (However, some services may require prior authorization for coverage.) Like a PPO, this plan does provide some coverage for out-of-network providers.

The differences across plan types in access to and cost sharing for out-of-network providers leads to the important question, do MA networks vary by plan within contract? For example, in Figure 1 below, do the beneficiaries enrolled in Plan 1 or 2 under Contract A have the same set of in- and out-of-network providers (likewise for the beneficiaries in Plans 1-3 under contract B)? More specifically, what if Plan 1 is an HMO and Plan 2 is a HMO-POS plan, do they share the same network?

Figure 1: CMS Medicare Advantage and Part D Contract and Plan Enumeration (2010). Source: https://ncvhs.hhs.gov/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/100719p08.pdf

The simple answer seems to be: not necessarily, though more recent regulations attempt to push insurers toward having the same networks across plans within contracts.

For instance, prior to 2019, CMS only reviewed the adequacy of an MA organization’s contracted network under a “triggering event,” like if an organization were to operate a new plan, expand coverage to additional service areas, or in a response to inadequate network complaints. The scope of CMS’ review varied depending on the triggering event that occurred. In some cases, CMS could only conduct partial reviews of a contract’s network, looking at a select set of specialties or counties. A study by the US Government Accountability Office found that between 2013 and 2015, CMS had reviewed less than 1% of all networks. Without regular scrutiny by regulators, it seems likely that networks varied across plans within contracts.

Under the current MA Network Adequacy Criteria Guidance, CMS assesses network adequacy requirements both under triggering events (as explained above) and, separate from that, on a triennial-basis at the contract-level. CMS has previously commented in the 2021 Final Rule that this approach allows them to assess the adequacy of organizations’ networks across all of their plan types (HMOs, PPOs, SNPs) and consider the broadest availability of providers and facilities for an organization. Again, this suggests that insurers may vary networks across plans within contracts.

There are at least two scenarios for which we know certain plans can and likely do have different networks compared with other plans in the contract.

  • Special Needs Plans (SNPs) are plans designed for individuals with specific diseases or characteristics, such as those who are dual-eligible, have institutional care needs, or have a chronic condition. SNPs can be allowed by regulators to augment the contract’s network to integrate care management teams and specialty providers to accommodate beneficiaries’ complex care needs under the plan’s Model of Care. While SNPs may be granted additional flexibility to alter the contract-level networks established, CMS does not allow SNPs to narrow or shrink that network. They can only expand it.
  • Provider Specific Plan (PSPs) are plans often found under large, integrated medical groups or provider groups that are the primary bearers of risk. PSP enrollees have access to a smaller subset of in-network providers. Since this plan type has a network of fewer providers than the overall contracted network, organizations must request to offer a PSP from CMS and attest that these plans are in compliance with network adequacy requirements.

Future work with Vericred provider-network data could be one approach to exploring variations in networks among plans under the same contract and service area, beyond the cases listed above. If networks are varying across HMO, PPO, and HMO-POS plans within contracts, it would be interesting to explore just how different they are from one another. Moreover, as CMS reviews continues to review network adequacy requirements at the contract-level (and if networks do differ by plan), one should consider the breadth of the network that organizations are submitting for evaluation. To what extent all plans in a contract are in compliance with network adequacy rules warrants future investigation.

Businesses face major benefits questions amid Roe uncertainty

Corporate America is facing a flurry of questions about how it provides health benefits in the wake of a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft that indicates the federal right to abortion could be overturned.

Why it matters: Businesses hoping to use reproductive health benefits as part of efforts to recruit and retain employees would have to be careful not to run afoul of laws should states be allowed to ban abortions.

  • The balancing act over the next several months could get messy, experts warn.

What they’re saying: “It’s a serious issue for employers,” said Candice Sherman, the CEO of the Northeast Business Group on Health. The group represents roughly 80 large companies such as American Express, Colgate, Moderna and Pfizer.

  • Limits on abortion coverage have the potential to impact the physical and mental health of the workforce and could come as many employers are addressing equity and inclusion for women, people of color and LGBTQ employees, Sherman said.
  • That is often communicated by companies through benefit design.

State of play: Some large companies like Amazon, Apple and Lyft have already announced plans to provide workarounds in those states with abortion restrictions.

  • But many others are still on the sidelines as they tease out employees’ priorities on abortion-related benefits, as well as the potential costs and legal risks.
  • Eleven states restrict insurance coverage of abortion in all private insurance plans written in the state, including those offered through Affordable Care Act markets, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Six other states require abortion coverage in private health insurance plans.

Zoom in: One of the most immediate questions is what kind of employer-sponsored abortion coverage — as well as enhanced benefits like travel stipends — might create legal liabilities for companies in states that ban abortion.

  • “There’s a question as to whether providing transportation benefits could be construed, or at least alleged by the states in enforcement, as aiding and abetting,” said Garrett Hohimer, director of policy and advocacy for the Business Group on Health. That group counts corporations like The Walt Disney Co., Walmart and General Motors among its members.
  • Companies like Citigroup that pay for out-of-state abortions have already been threatened with the loss of business.

Yes, but: In the case of a challenge, companies would have a strong argument that federal protections for providing abortion care benefits preempt state laws, Emily Dickens, the head of government affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, told Axios.

  • Dickens pointed specifically to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act which specifically says an employer is permitted to provide health insurance coverage for abortion, as well as protections under ERISA law.

But, but, but: It’s not a sure thing. For instance: “ERISA is not a get out of jail free card,” Hohimer warned, saying there is some question about how the law would be interpreted.

  • While experts largely believe the Affordable Care Act would provide protections for birth control coverage, it’s unclear how fertility benefits such as egg freezing, surrogacy or in vitro fertilization might be affected, Sherman said.

What to watch: Many large companies already offer health benefits allowing workers to travel to Centers of Excellence for procedures like joint replacements or cancer care.

  • Those kinds of benefits will likely gain more attention because of the attention surrounding reproductive health, Hohimer said.
  • Sherman said this may also raise questions about whether there’s flexibility in the tax code to expand the scope of Flexible Spending Accounts or Health Savings Accounts to cover travel for any health care issues.

The bottom line: “Assuming this discussion comes down the way we think it may, organizations are going to have to work very hard,” Sherman said.

The Pitfalls of Cost Sharing in Healthcare

The Pitfalls of Cost Sharing in Healthcare – Health Econ Bot

Cost-sharing is the practice of making individuals responsible for part of their health insurance costs beyond the monthly premiums they pay for health insurance – think things like deductibles and copayments. The practice is meant to inspire more thoughtful choices among consumers when it comes to healthcare decisions. However, the choices it inspires can often be more harmful than good.

Transgender patients face increasing obstacles to care

https://mailchi.mp/bade80e9bbb7/the-weekly-gist-june-18-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

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During Pride Month we feel it’s especially important to shine a light on the significant health disparities faced by transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals.

Transgender healthcare has been under growing attack in recent months; while the Biden administration formally reinstated Affordable Care Act protections for transgender Americans against discrimination in healthcare, 20 states have introduced anti-trans bills since the start of the year, most featuring provisions that bar physicians from providing trans children with gender-affirming care.

The graphic above shows that  transgender individuals are twice as likely as the broader LGBTQ+ population to delay care for fear of discriminationTrans individuals deal with myriad types of medical discrimination, from being misgendered in routine interactions to being denied treatment. And trans people of color report experiencing this mistreatment even more frequently. Transgender people are also more likely to be uninsured or to delay care for financial reasons, in part because their unemployment and uninsured rates are higher than the national average. Even when they do find supportive providers, nearly 40 percent report that their insurance will not cover essential elements of transitional care, such as hormone therapy.
 
It’s incumbent on doctors and health systems to strengthen their policies for treating trans individuals. Trans-specific training for clinicians and staff is a great place to start. Even simple shifts in operations—like including preferred name and pronouns on patient records and providing equal access to public restrooms—are small but important steps to providing a safer, more inclusive healthcare experience and reducing transgender health disparities.

Medicaid insurers at heart of Nevada public option plan

Nevada Plans To Launch Their “Public Option” Medical Coverage By 2026 – Dr.  Daliah

The state will bid out the business to private insurance carriers instead of doing the work in-house. Medicaid managed care organizations will be required to submit a bid.

Nevada’s plan to launch a public option health plan hinges on participation from the state’s Medicaid managed care organizations.

After passing both houses of the legislature, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak told reporters Tuesday he will sign the bill that will likely crown Nevada as the second state to pass a public option — a government-run plan that promises to lower premiums and increase access to care by creating an additional insurance option for residents.

To achieve its aims, Nevada’s public option plan requires premiums to be 5% lower than the benchmark silver Affordable Care Act plan in each ZIP code and, ultimately, premiums must be reduced by 15% over a four-year period. At the same time, reimbursement to providers must not go below Medicare rates.

Coverage under the public option would begin in 2026. The bill is just the beginning of a process in which Nevada will seek a waiver from the federal government to enact the public option plan. In short, the state is asking to capture the savings it may generate for the federal government.

Similar to other public health programs, the state of Nevada will bid out the public option business to insurance carriers instead of doing the work in-house. The state will rely heavily on Medicaid managed care organizations, at least at first, as it tries to spur participation.

“As a condition of continued participation in any Medicaid managed care program,” Medicaid MCOs will be forced to offer a public option plan if they want a Medicaid contract with the state, according to the bill sponsored by a Democratic state senator and Nevada’s majority leader, Nicole Cannizzaro, which passed the body earlier this week.

The bill says Medicaid MCOs must submit a “good faith proposal,” in response to an eventual RFP.

Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms, said she “assumed they wanted a guaranteed pool of potential bidders for the public option. Maybe they were afraid that if they didn’t require some bidders, they might not get any.”

Currently, there are three Medicaid MCOs in the state of Nevada: Centene, UnitedHealthcare and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield.

None of the companies responded to a request for comment.

The Nevada bill comes at a time when there is a renewed interest at the federal level for a public option plan, and a push from a handful of other states interested in creating an affordable health plan option for residents who have found themselves ineligible for Medicaid but unable to afford a marketplace plan.

Washington was the first state to implement a public option plan, which went live this year. 

President Joe Biden is a proponent of a public option plan — instead of “Medicare for All” — as it would build on the ACA, a law he helped usher in under former President Barack Obama, instead of dismantle it.

The insurance lobby is strongly opposed to a public option and previously expressed concern over Nevada’s plan via an opposition letter dated May 3 and addressed to Cannizzaro and the state’s Health and Human Services Committee.

AHIP, America’s Health Insurance Plans, took aim at the way in which the bill requires premiums for the public option plan to be lower than certain competitive plans on the exchange. AHIP characterized it as arbitrary “government rate setting.”

The tactic of prodding insurers into offering a separate business line in a specific state is not new.

The exchanges, launched under the ACA, relied on insurers to voluntarily sell plans to a relatively new market. At times, some counties were at risk of having no exchange plan at all. Some states tried to alleviate this problem by creating incentives for Medicaid MCOs if they also offered an exchange plan.

In a more extreme example, New York banned insurers from providing plans to any other program, including Medicaid, if they exited the exchange, according to a 2017 executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Over time, the exchanges have become a core business for Medicaid MCOs.

Selling exchange plans is a complementary business for Medicaid MCOs that traditionally contract with states to care for Medicaid-eligible members. By selling exchange plans, Medicaid MCOs attempt to attract the Medicaid members they were serving as they churn off the program as their income fluctuates. It’s a key strategy for players like Centene.

However, if they’re forced to participate in the public option plan they will have to undercut their own premium prices on the exchange.

In Nevada, UnitedHealthcare and Centene command the largest market share on the exchange, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.