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

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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.

Out-of-network payments in Medicare Advantage

Figure 1: MA HMO Out-of-Network Payments

The complexity of Medicare Advantage (MA) physician networks has been well-documented, but the payment regulations that underlie these plans remain opaque, even to experts. If an MA plan enrollee sees an out-of-network doctor, how much should she expect to pay?

The answer, like much of the American healthcare system, is complicated. We’ve consulted experts and scoured nearly inscrutable government documents to try to find it. In this post we try to explain what we’ve learned in a much more accessible way.

Medicare Advantage Basics

Medicare Advantage is the private insurance alternative to traditional Medicare (TM), comprised largely of HMO and PPO optionsOne-third of the 60+ million Americans covered by Medicare are enrolled in MA plans. These plans, subsidized by the government, are governed by Medicare rules, but, within certain limits, are able to set their own premiums, deductibles, and service payment schedules each year.

Critically, they also determine their own network extent, choosing which physicians are in- or out-of-network. Apart from cost sharing or deductibles, the cost of care from providers that are in-network is covered by the plan. However, if an enrollee seeks care from a provider who is outside of their plan’s network, what the cost is and who bears it is much more complex.

Provider Types

To understand the MA (and enrollee) payment-to-provider pipeline, we first need to understand the types of providers that exist within the Medicare system.

Participating providers, which constitute about 97% of all physicians in the U.S., accept Medicare Fee-For-Service (FFS) rates for full payment of their services. These are the rates paid by TM. These doctors are subject to the fee schedules and regulations established by Medicare and MA plans.

Non-participating providers (about 2% of practicing physicians) can accept FFS Medicare rates for full payment if they wish (a.k.a., “take assignment”), but they generally don’t do so. When they don’t take assignment on a particular case, these providers are not limited to charging FFS rates.

Opt-out providers don’t accept Medicare FFS payment under any circumstances. These providers, constituting only 1% of practicing physicians, can set their own charges for services and require payment directly from the patient. (Many psychiatrists fall into this category: they make up 42% of all opt-out providers. This is particularly concerning in light of studies suggesting increased rates of anxiety and depression among adults as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic).

How Out-of-Network Doctors are Paid

So, if an MA beneficiary goes to see an out-of-network doctor, by whom does the doctor get paid and how much? At the most basic level, when a Medicare Advantage HMO member willingly seeks care from an out-of-network provider, the member assumes full liability for payment. That is, neither the HMO plan nor TM will pay for services when an MA member goes out-of-network.

The price that the provider can charge for these services, though, varies, and must be disclosed to the patient before any services are administered. If the provider is participating with Medicare (in the sense defined above), they charge the patient no more than the standard Medicare FFS rate for their services. Non-participating providers that do not take assignment on the claim are limited to charging the beneficiary 115% of the Medicare FFS amount, the “limiting charge.” (Some states further restrict this. In New York State, for instance, the maximum is 105% of Medicare FFS payment.) In these cases, the provider charges the patient directly, and they are responsible for the entire amount (See Figure 1.)

Alternatively, if the provider has opted-out of Medicare, there are no limits to what they can charge for their services. The provider and patient enter into a private contract; the patient agrees to pay the full amount, out of pocket, for all services.

MA PPO plans operate slightly differently. By nature of the PPO plan, there are built-in benefits covering visits to out-of-network physicians (usually at the expense of higher annual deductibles and co-insurance compared to HMO plans). Like with HMO enrollees, an out-of-network Medicare-participating physician will charge the PPO enrollee no more than the standard FFS rate for their services. The PPO plan will then reimburse the enrollee 100% of this rate, less coinsurance. (See Figure 2.)

In contrast, a non-participating physician that does not take assignment is limited to charging a PPO enrollee 115% of the Medicare FFS amount, which can be further limited by state regulations. In this case, the PPO enrollee is also reimbursed by their plan up to 100% (less coinsurance) of the FFS amount for their visit. Again, opt-out physicians are exempt from these regulations and must enter private contracts with patients.

Figure 2: MA PPO Out-of-Network Payments

Some Caveats

There are two major caveats to these payment schemes (with many more nuanced and less-frequent exceptions detailed here). First, if a beneficiary seeks urgent or emergent care (as defined by Medicare) and the provider happens to be out-of-network for the MA plan (regardless of HMO/PPO status), the plan must cover the services at their established in-network emergency services rates.

The second caveat is in regard to the declared public health emergency due to COVID-19 (set to expire in April 2021, but likely to be extended). MA plans are currently required to cover all out-of-network services from providers that contract with Medicare (i.e., all but opt-out providers) and charge beneficiaries no more than the plan-established in-network rates for these services. This is being mandated by CMS to compensate for practice closures and other difficulties of finding in-network care as a result of the pandemic.

Conclusion

Outside of the pandemic and emergency situations, knowing how much you’ll need to pay for out-of-network services as a MA enrollee depends on a multitude of factors. Though the vast majority of American physicians contract with Medicare, the intersection of insurer-engineered physician networks and the complex MA payment system could lead to significant unexpected costs to the patient.

The Rising Crisis of Underinsurance: How the Biden Administration May Shape Inequities in Patient Affordability

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The Affordable Care Act (ACA) made historic strides in expanding access to health insurance coverage by covering an additional 20 million Americans. President Joe Biden ran on a platform of building upon the ACA and filling in its gaps. With Democratic majority in the Senate, aspects of his health care plan could move from idea into reality.

The administration’s main focus is on uninsurance, which President Biden proposes to tackle in three main ways: providing an accessible and affordable public option, increasing tax credits to help lower monthly premiums, and indexing marketplace tax credits to gold rather than silver plans.

However, underinsurance remains a problem. Besides the nearly 29 million remaining uninsured Americans, over 40% of working age adults are underinsured, meaning their out-of-pocket cost-sharing, excluding premiums, are 5-10% of household income or more, depending on income level.

High cost-sharing obligations—especially high deductibles—means insurance might provide little financial protection against medical costs beneath the deductible. Bills for several thousand dollars could financially devastate a family, with the insurer owing nothing at all. Recent trends in health insurance enrollment suggest that uninsurance should not be the only issue to address.

A high demand for low premiums

Enrollment in high deductible health plans (HDHP) has been on a meteoric rise over the past 15 years, from approximately 4% of people with employer-sponsored insurance in 2006 to nearly 30% in 2019, leading to growing concern about underinsurance. “Qualified” HDHPs, which come with additional tax benefits, generally have lower monthly premiums, but high minimum deductibles. As of 2020, the Internal Revenue Service defines HDHPs as plans with minimum deductibles of at least $1,400 for an individual ($2,800 for families), although average annual deductibles are $2,583 for an individual ($5,335 for families).

HDHPs are associated with delays in both unnecessary and necessary care, including cancer screenings and treatment, or skipped prescription fills. There is evidence that Black patients disproportionately experience these effects, which may further widen racial health inequities.

common prescription has been to expand access to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), with employer and individual contributions offsetting higher upfront cost-sharing. Employers often contribute on behalf of their employees to HSAs, but for individuals in lower wage jobs without such benefits or without extra income to contribute themselves, the account itself may sit empty, rendering it useless.

recent article in Health Affairs found that HDHP enrollment increased from 2007 to 2018 across all racial, ethnic, and income groups, but also revealed that low-income, Black, and Hispanic enrollees were significantly less likely to have an HSA, with disparities growing over time. For instance, by 2018, they found that among HDHP enrollees under 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL), only 21% had an HSA, while 52% of those over 400% FPL had an HSA. In short, the people who could most likely benefit from an HSA were also least likely to have one.

If trends in HDHP enrollment and HSA access continue, it could result in even more Americans who are covered on paper, yet potentially unable to afford care.

Addressing uninsurance could also begin to address underinsurance

President Biden’s health care proposal primarily addresses uninsurance by making it more affordable and accessible. This can also tangentially tackle underinsurance.

To make individual market insurance more affordable, Biden proposes expanding the tax credits established under the ACA. His plan calls for removing the 400% FPL cap on financial assistance in the marketplaces and lowering the limit on health insurance premiums to 8.5% of income. Americans would now be able to opt out of their employer plan if there is a better deal on HealthCare.gov or their state Marketplace. Previously, most individuals who had an offer of employer coverage were ineligible for premium subsidies—important for individuals whose only option might have been an employer-sponsored HDHP.

Biden also proposes to index the tax credits that subsidize premiums to gold plans, rather than silver plans as currently done. This would increase the size of these tax credits, making it easier for Americans to afford more generous plans with lower deductibles and out-of-pocket costs, substantially reducing underinsurance.

The most ambitious of Biden’s proposed health policies is a public option, which would create a Medicare-esque offering on marketplaces, available to anyone. As conceived in Biden’s proposal, such a plan would eliminate premiums and having minimal-to-no cost-sharing for low-income enrollees; especially meaningful for under- and uninsured people in states yet to expand Medicaid.

Moving forward: A need to directly address underinsurance

More extensive efforts are necessary to meaningfully address underinsurance and related inequities. For instance, the majority of persons with HDHPs receive coverage through an employer, where the employer shares in paying premiums, yet cost-sharing does not adjust with income as it can in the marketplace. Possible solutions range from employer incentives to expanding the scope of deductible-exempt services, which could also address some of the underlying disparities that affect access to and use of health care.

The burden of high cost-sharing often falls on those who cannot afford it, while benefiting employers, healthy employees, or those who can afford large deductibles. Instead of encouraging HSAs, offering greater pre-tax incentives that encourage employers to reabsorb some of the costs that they have shifted on their lower-income employees could prevent the income inequity gap from widening further.

Under the ACA, most health insurance plans are required to cover certain preventative services without patient cost-sharing. Many health plans also exempt other types of services from the deductible – from generic drugs to certain types of specialist visits – although these exemptions vary widely across plans. Expanding deductible-exempt services to include follow-up care or other high-value services could improve access to important services or even medication adherence without high patient cost burden. Better educating employees about what services are exempt would make sure that patients aren’t forgoing care that should be fully covered.

Health insurance is complicated. Choosing a plan is only the start. More affordable choices are helpful only if these choices are fully understood, e.g., the tradeoff between an HDHP’s lower monthly premium and the large upfront out-of-pocket cost when using care. Investing in well-trained, diverse navigators to help people understand how their options work with their budget and health care needs can make a big difference, given that low health insurance literacy is related to higher avoidance of care.

The ACA helped expand coverage, but now it’s time to make sure the coverage provided is more than an unused insurance card. The Biden administration has the opportunity and responsibility to make progress not only on reducing the uninsured rate, but also in reducing disparities in access and patient affordability.

More evidence that cost-sharing doesn’t work

Image result for axios More evidence that cost-sharing doesn't work

A growing body of research keeps undermining a key tenet of health economics, Axios’ Sam Baker writes — the belief that requiring patients to pay more out of their own pockets will make them smarter consumers, forcing the health care system to deliver value.

Driving the news: Even a seemingly modest increase in out-of-pocket costs will cause many patients to stop taking drugs they need, according to a new working paper from Harvard economist Amitabh Chandra.

  • Raising Medicare recipients’ out-of-pocket costs by just $10 per prescription led to a 23% drop in overall drug consumption, and to a 33% increase in mortality. 
  • And seniors weren’t simply ditching “low-value” drugs. People at high risk for heart attacks or strokes cut back on statins and blood-pressure medications even more than lower-risk patients.

Between the lines: This research focuses on Medicare’s drug benefit, but higher cost-sharing is all the rage throughout the system, and there’s little evidence that it has generated “smarter shoppers.”

  • Patients with high-deductible plans — increasingly common in the employer market — don’t shop around for the best deal, which is all but impossible to do in many cases even if you wanted to try.

Go deeper: The “skin in the game” theory of health care hasn’t panned out