The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appears set to extend the federal COVID PHE past its current expiration date of January 11, 2023, as HHS had promised to give stakeholders at least 60 days’ notice before ending it, and that deadline came and went on November 11th. Days later the Senate voted to end the PHE, a bill which Biden has promised to veto should it reach his desk. Measures set to expire with the PHE, or on a several month delay after it ends, include Medicare telehealth flexibilities, continuous enrollment guarantees in Medicaid, and boosted payments to hospitals treating COVID patients.
The Gist: Despite growing calls to end the PHE declaration, and even as White House COVID coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha has said another severe COVID surge this winter is unlikely, the White House is likely trying to buy time to resolve the complicated issues tied to the PHE, some of which must be dealt with legislatively.
And with a divided Congress ahead, it remains to be seen how these issues, especially Medicare telehealth flexibilities—a topic of bipartisan agreement—are sorted out. Meanwhile the continuation of the PHE prevents states from beginning Medicaid re-determinations, allowing millions of Americans to avoid being disenrolled.
Revenue cycle challenges “seem to have intensified over the past year,” according to Kaufman Hall’s “2022 State of Healthcare Performance Improvement” report, released Oct. 18.
The consulting firm said that in 2021, 25 percent of survey respondents said they had not seen any pandemic-related effects on their respective revenue cycles. This year, only 7 percent said they saw no effects.
The findings in Kaufman Hall’s report are based on survey responses from 86 hospital and health system leaders across the U.S.
Here are the top five ways leaders said the pandemic affected the revenue cycle in 2022:
1. Increased rate claim denials — 67 percent
2. Change in payer mix: Lower percentage of commercially insured patients — 51 percent
3. Increase in bad debt/uncompensated care — 41 percent
4. Change in payer mix: Higher percentage of Medicaid patients — 35 percent
5. Change in payer mix: Higher percentage of self-pay or uninsured patients — 31 percent
Earlier this month, the Biden administration officially extended the federal public health emergency (PHE) declaration it had set in place for COVID-19. That means the PHE provisions will stay in effect for another 90 days — until mid-January at least.
When the PHE does end, a number of rules developed in response to the pandemic will sunset. One of those is a provision that temporarily requires states to let all Medicaid beneficiaries remain enrolled in the program — even if they have become ineligible during the pandemic.
Estimates suggest that millions could lose Medicaid coverage when this emergency provision ends. Among those who would lose coverage because they are no longer eligible for the program, about one-third are expected to qualify for subsidized coverage on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces. Most others are expected to get coverage through an employer. It remains an open question, though, how many people will successfully transition to these other plans.
A recent paper by health economics researcher Laura Dague and colleagues in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law sheds light on these dynamics. The authors used a prior change in eligibility in Wisconsin’s Medicaid program to estimate how many people successfully transitioned to a private plan when their Medicaid eligibility ended.
Wisconsin’s Medicaid program is unique. Back in 2008 — before the ACA passed — Wisconsin broadly expanded Medicaid eligibility for non-elderly adults. After the ACA came into effect, Wisconsin reworked its Medicaid program in a way that made about 44,000 adults (mostly parents) with incomes above the federal poverty line ineligible for the program. To remain insured, they would have to switch to private coverage (via Obamacare or an employer).
Only about one-third of those 44,000 people had definitely enrolled in private coverage within two months of exiting the Medicaid program.
The remaining two-thirds of people were uninsured or their insurance status couldn’t be determined.
Even using the most optimistic assumptions to fill in that missing insurance status data, the authors estimated only up to 42% of people might have had private coverage within three months.
Nearly 1 in 10 enrollees had re-entered Medicaid coverage within six months, possibly due to fluctuations in household income.
This paper has several limitations. Health insurers are not required to participate in Wisconsin’s APCD, so the authors may not be capturing all successful transitions from Medicaid to private insurance. The paper also does not distinguish between different types of private insurance: Some coverage gains may have resulted from employer-based insurance rather than the ACA marketplace.
Still, the findings suggest that when a large number of Wisconsin residents lost Medicaid eligibility in 2014, many were not able to transition from Medicaid to private coverage. Wisconsin’s experience can help us understand what might happen when the national public health emergency ends and Medicaid programs resume removing people from their rolls.
Millions are about to lose Medicaid while still eligible.
President Biden recently said that the pandemic is “over.” Regardless of how you feel about that statement or his clarification, it is clear that state and federal health policy is and has been moving in the direction of acting as if the pandemic is indeed over. And with that, a big shoe yet to drop looms large — millions of Americans are about to lose their Medicaid coverage, even though many will still be eligible. This amounts to a self-inflicted wound of lost coverage and a potential crisis for access to healthcare, simply because of paperwork.
An August report from HHS estimated that about 15 million Americans will lose either Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage once the federal COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) declaration is allowed to expire. Of these 15 million, 8.2 million are projected to be people who no longer qualify for Medicaid or CHIP — but nearly just as many (6.8 million) will become uninsured despite still being eligible.
Why Is This Happening?
This Medicaid “cliff” will happen because the extra funding states have been receiving under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) since March 2020 was contingent upon keeping everyone enrolled by halting all the bureaucracy that determines whether people are still eligible. Once all the processes to redetermine eligibility resume, the lack of up-to-date contact information, requests for documentation, and other administrative burdens will leave many falling through the cracks. A wrong address, one missed letter, and it all starts to unravel. This will have potentially devastating implications for health.
When Will This Happen?
HHS has said they will provide 60 days’ notice to states before any termination or expiration of the PHE — and they haven’t done so yet. It also seems incredibly unlikely that they would announce an end date for the PHE before the midterm elections, as that would be a major self-inflicted political wound. So, odds are that we are safe until at least January 2023 — but extensions beyond that feel less certain.
What Are States Doing to Prepare?
CMS has issued a slew of guidance over the past year to help states prepare for the end of the PHE and minimize churn, another word for when people lose coverage. Some of this guidance has included ways to work with managed care plans, which deliver benefits to more than 70% of Medicaid enrollees, to obtain up-to-date beneficiary contact information, and methods of conducting outreach and providing support to enrollees during the redetermination process.
However, the end of the PHE and the Medicaid redetermination process will largely be a state-by-state story. Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families has been tracking how states are preparing for the unwinding process. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable variation between states’ plans, outreach efforts, and the types of information accessible to people looking to renew their coverage. For example, less than half of all states have a publicly available plan for how the redetermination process will occur. While CMS has encouraged states to develop plans, they are not required to submit their plans to CMS and there is no public reporting requirement.
Who Will Be Hurt Most?
If you dig into the HHS report, you will see that the disenrollment cliff will likely be a disaster for health equity — as if the inequities of the pandemic itself weren’t enough. A majority of those projected to lose coverage are non-white and/or Latinx, making up 52% of those losing coverage because of changes in eligibility and 61% among those losing coverage because of administrative burdens. Only 17% of white non-Latinx are projected to be disenrolled inappropriately, compared to 40% of Black non-Latinx, 51% of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander, and 64% of Latinx people — a very grim picture. This represents a disproportionate burden of coverage loss, when still eligible, among those already bearing inequitable burdens of the pandemic and systemic racism more generally.
Another key population at risk are seniors and people with disabilities who have Medicaid coverage, or those who aren’t part of the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) population. Under the Affordable Care Act, states are required to redetermine eligibility at renewal using available data. This process, known as ex parte renewal, prevents enrollees from having to respond to, and potentially missing, onerous re-enrollment notifications and forms. Despite federal requirements, not all states attempt to conduct ex parte renewals for seniors and people with disabilities who have Medicaid coverage, or those who aren’t qualifying based on income. Excluding these groups from the ex parte process has important health equity implications, leaving already vulnerable groups more exposed and at risk for having their coverage inappropriately terminated.
What Can Be Done?
There are ways to mitigate some of this coverage loss and ensure people have continued access to care. HHS recently released a proposed rule that would simplify the application for Medicaid by shifting more of the burden of the application and renewal processes onto the government as opposed to those trying to enroll or renew their coverage. We could also change the rules to allow states to use more data, like information collected to verify eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), in making renewal decisions, rather than relying so much on income. The Biden administration also made significant investments into navigator organizations, which can help those who are no longer eligible for Medicaid transition to marketplace coverage. Furthermore, states should use this as an opportunity to determine the most effective ways to reach Medicaid enrollees by partnering with researchers to test different communication methods surrounding renewals and redeterminations.
As the federal government and state Medicaid agencies continue to prepare for the end of the PHE, it is critical that they consider who these burdensome processes will affect the most and how to improve them to prevent people from falling through the cracks. More sick Americans without access to care is the last thing we need.
Using longitudinal survey data and 2021 enrollment information, HHS estimated that, based on historical patterns of coverage loss, this would translate to about 17.4% of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) enrollees leaving the program.
About 9.5% of Medicaid enrollees, or 8.2 million people, will leave Medicaid due to loss of eligibility and will need to transition to another source of coverage. Based on historical patterns, 7.9% (6.8 million) will lose Medicaid coverage despite still being eligible – a phenomenon known as “administrative churning” – although HHS said it’s taking steps to reduce this outcome.
Children and young adults will be impacted disproportionately, with 5.3 million children and 4.7 million adults ages 18-34 predicted to lose Medicaid/CHIP coverage. Nearly one-third of those predicted to lose coverage are Hispanic (4.6 million) and 15% (2.2 million) are Black.
Almost one-third (2.7 million) of those predicted to lose eligibility are expected to qualify for marketplace premium tax credits. Among these, more than 60% (1.7 million) are expected to be eligible for zero-premium marketplace plans under the provisions of the American Rescue Plan. Another 5 million would be expected to obtain other coverage, primarily employer-sponsored insurance.
An estimated 383,000 people projected to lose eligibility for Medicaid would fall in the coverage gap in the remaining 12 non-expansion states – with incomes too high for Medicaid, but too low to receive Marketplace tax credits. State adoption of Medicaid expansion in these states is a key tool to mitigate potential coverage loss at the end of the PHE, said HHS.
States are directly responsible for eligibility redeterminations, while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services provides technical assistance and oversight of compliance with Medicaid regulations. Eligibility and renewal systems, staffing capacity, and investment in end-of-PHE preparedness vary across states.
HHS said it’s working with states to facilitate enrollment in alternative sources of health coverage and minimize administrative churning. These efforts could reduce the number of eligible people losing Medicaid, the agency said.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022extends the ARP’s enhanced and expanded Marketplace premium tax credit provisions until 2025, providing a key source of alternative coverage for those losing Medicaid eligibility, said HHS.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
While the model projects that as many as 15 million people could leave Medicaid after the PHE, about 5 million are likely to obtain other coverage outside the marketplace and nearly 3 million would have a subsidized Marketplace option. And some who lose eligibility at the end of the PHE may regain it during the unwinding period, while some who lose coverage despite being eligible may re-enroll.
The findings highlight the importance of administrative and legislative actions to reduce the risk of coverage losses after the continuous enrollment provision ends, said HHS. Successful policy approaches should address the different reasons for coverage loss.
Broadly speaking, one set of strategies is needed to increase the likelihood that those losing Medicaid eligibility acquire other coverage, and a second set of strategies is needed to minimize administrative churning among those still eligible for coverage.
Importantly, some administrative churning is expected under all scenarios, though reducing the typical churning rate by half would result in the retention of 3.4 million additional enrollees.
THE LARGER TREND
CMS has released a roadmap to ending the COVID-19 public health emergency as health officials are expecting the Biden administration to extend the PHE for another 90 days after mid-October.
The end of the PHE, last continued on July 15, is not known, but HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra has promised to give providers 60 days’ notice before announcing the end of the public health emergency.
A public health emergency has existed since January 27, 2020.
Republican-led states that have resisted expanding Medicaid for more than a decade are showing new openness to the idea.
Driving the news: In the decade-plus since the landmark Affordable Care Act was enacted, 12 states with GOP-led legislatures still have not expanded Medicaid coverage to people living below 138% of the poverty line (or nearly $19,000 annually for one person in 2022).
But there’s evidence that the political winds are changing in holdout states like North Carolina, Georgia, Wyoming, Alabama and Texas, as leaders court rural voters, assess new financial incentives and confront the bipartisan popularity of extending health care coverage.
Why it matters: Medicaid expansion, a key component of the Affordable Care Act, means increasing access to federal health insurance coverage for low-income residents, in exchange for a 10% state match of the federal spending.
Experts say it expands access to care, lowers uninsured rates and improves health outcomes for low-income populations.
More than 2 million Americans would gain coverage if the 12 states expand Medicaid, according to a 2021 estimate from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The big picture: Some Republican states have already expanded Medicaid through executive authority or — in states where it’s legal to do so — citizen-led ballot initiatives.
Referendums on the issue passed in Nebraska, Utah and Idaho in 2018 and Missouri and Oklahoma in 2020.
Medicaid expansion is on this November’s ballot in Republican-controlled South Dakota. (Voters there in June rejected a GOP proposal to make it harder to pass.)
Be smart: In most of the remaining non-expansion states, neither ballot initiatives nor executive authority are options, leaving the legislature with the authority to make the decision.
“If there is a person that has spoken out more against Medicaid expansion than I have, I’d like to meet that person,” Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said at a May press conference after reversing his stance. “This is the right thing for us to do.”
Brian Robinson, former spokesman for the first Georgia governor to reject Medicaid expansion, argued in June it’s time to make the change. Politically, it would “steal an issue” from Democrats, he told Axios Atlanta.
Policy-wise, “this isn’t what we would do,” Robinson said of Medicaid’s much-criticized structure. “But Republicans can’t agree on what we would do. This is the policy and the law, and it’s not going away. It would bring home hundreds of millions from a program we’re paying into already.”
What they’re saying: “There is real momentum on Medicaid expansion in these conservative states that have been holding out,” said Melissa Burroughs of Families USA, a health care advocacy group working with partners in non-expansion states to push the policy.
Burroughs told Axios there are Republicans championing or discussing expansion in every non-expansion state, but often “political dynamics and leadership” stand in the way.
Former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley,who had refused to expand Medicaid himself, is now urging his fellow Republicans to pass it for the benefit of rural parts of the state.
In Texas, the state with the highest percentage of uninsured residents per capita, some Republicans have co-sponsored Medicaid expansion bills. That indicates “cracks” in Republican opposition, Luis Figueroa, legislative and policy director at progressive think tank Every Texan, told Axios Austin’s Nicole Cobler and Asher Price.
Tennessee’s Republican lieutenant governorsuggested possible openness to the policy last year, though there’s been no meaningful legislative movement.
Details: The winds are shifting for several reasons, experts told Axios.
Money: The 2021 federal pandemic relief law sweetened the deal for non-expansion states, with a provision designed to offset states’ costs entirely for the first two years. Plus, Republicans’ initial fears that the federal government would pull its 90% matching funds haven’t come to pass.
COVID-19: Under the federal state of a public health emergency, Medicaid access was automatically extended. But those temporary allowances could lift next year and millions could lose coverage, putting additional pressure on leaders.
Politics: Medicaid expansion continues to be broadly popular, and the Republican campaign to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act has failed in the courts and Congress — neutralizing what was once a key argument against expansion.
Health care access: As hospitals across the country close, deepening the rural health care crisis, the benefit of getting more reimbursement from additional Medicaid recipients is difficult to ignore for rural hospital revenues — though the policy is not a silver bullet to end the crisis.
The intrigue: Democrats in these states, including gubernatorial candidates like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Texas’ Beto O’Rourke, continue to campaign heavily on Medicaid expansion — banking on polling showing the policy to be consistently popular among the public.
“I think a lot of Republican members would like to extend Medicaid even more than they will say it,” Texas Democratic State Sen. Nathan Johnson, who has led the push for expansion there, told Axios Austin’s Cobler and Price.
He said Republicans “are handcuffed by the ideological and political constraints. They will try to do some things to help people, but they need to get over the reflexive opposition to Medicaid expansion.”
Between the lines: Even in non-expansion states, partial expansion proposals have gained traction.
Kaiser Health News found that nine of the 12 states have sought or plan to seek an extension of postpartum Medicaid coverage, including for up to one year in North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with the DOJ’s statement regarding its civil fraud complaint. This story was originally filed June 3.
Updated: July 13, 3:30 p.m.
The federal government filed a civil complaint Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn against the country’s largest dialysis provider alleging that the company performed unnecessary procedures on dialysis patients.
The Department of Justice has formally intervened and joined the False Claims Act whistleblower lawsuit filed against dialysis giant Fresenius Medical Care, according to court documents filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.
The DOJ’s False Claims Act complaint alleges Fresenius Vascular Care, a business unit of Fresenius Medical Care performed these unnecessary procedures at nine centers across New York City, Long Island and Westchester, and billed the procedures to Medicare, Medicaid, the Federal Health Benefits Program and TRICARE. The complaint seeks damages and penalties under the False Claims Act.
The whistleblower complaint alleges that from about January 1, 2012 through June 30, 2018, Fresenius routinely performed certain procedures on patients with end stage renal disease (ESRD) who were receiving dialysis, without sufficient clinical indication that the patients needed the procedures. Fresenius knowingly subjected ESRD patients—who included elderly, disadvantaged minority, and low-income individuals—to these procedures to increase its revenues, the DOJ complaint states.
A Fresenius spokesperson said the company disputes the allegations contained in both the relators’ complaint and the U.S. government’s complaint and “intends to vigorously defend the litigation.”
“Our network of vascular centers is leading efforts to reduce total healthcare costs and improve patient outcomes by expanding access to innovative and less-invasive procedures. Our policies are intended to result in a high standard of care and compliance with government regulations,” the Fresenius spokesperson said in a statement.
Breon Peace, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, called the company’s alleged conduct “egregious,” claiming that Fresenius “not only defrauded federal healthcare programs but also subjected particularly vulnerable people to medically unnecessary procedures.”
“This Office will hold medical providers accountable for practices that needlessly expose patients to harm for financial gain at taxpayer expense,” Peace said in a statement.
Two doctors allege in a lawsuit that the country’s largest dialysis provider performed potentially thousands of unnecessary, invasive vascular procedures on late-stage kidney disease patients and fraudulently charged Medicare and Medicaid for these procedures.
The lawsuit, originally filed in 2014 in New York, claims Fresenius Medical Care and its business unit, Azura Vascular Care, violated the federal False Claims Act. The case remained under seal until the court lifted the seal May 9. The federal government has 60 days to file its complaint.
Nineteen states also are included in the lawsuit and potentially could join the case.
The U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York will be taking over with respect to federal False Claims Act fraud claims against Fresenius, according to law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case.
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment at the time.
The plaintiffs, two practicing nephrologists, charge in the complaint that Fresenius performed thousands of end-stage renal disease-related treatments that were “not medically reasonable and necessary” and that “exposed patients to undue and unnecessary risks.”
In a statement provided by a spokesperson, Fresenius declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Fresenius Medical Care North America is the largest dialysis provider in the U.S., operating over 2,600 dialysis units nationwide and treating over 205,000 patients annually. Its business unit, Azura Vascular Care, operates more than 90 vascular care facilities across the country.
A certain segment of the health policy world spends a lot of time trying to get more states to expand Medicaid and reduce underinsurance.
But are we doing enough to make sure care is accessible once people enroll? One issue is access to physicians, who are less likely to treat patients on Medicaid than Medicare or private insurance because Medicaid payment rates are lower.
A new paper in Health Affairs by Avital Ludomirsky and colleagues looked at how well the networks of physicians supposedly participating in Medicaid reflect access to care. The researchers used claims data and provider directories from Medicaid managed care plans (the private insurers that most states contract with to run their Medicaid programs) in Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee from 2015 and 2017 to assess how the delivery of care to Medicaid patients was distributed among participating doctors. Their results were striking:
One-quarter of primary care physicians provided 86% of the care; one-quarter of specialists provided 75%.
One-third of both types of physicians saw fewer than 10 Medicaid patients per year, hardly contributing any “access” at all.
There was only one psychiatrist for every 8,834 Medicaid enrollees after excluding those seeing fewer than 10 Medicaid patients per year. This is especially concerning given that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened mental health in the U.S., particularly among children.
The authors note that their study only covers primary care and mental health providers in four states, so it is not necessarily generalizable to other states or specialties. But these results are still concerning.
States have so-called network adequacy standards for their Medicaid managed care plans that are supposed to make sure there are enough providers. These standards typically rely on either a radius (a certain number of providers for a geographic area) or ratio (number of providers per enrollee), but the authors’ findings show these methods fall short if they are based on directories alone.
The authors specifically recommend states use claims-based assessments like the ones in the study and “secret shopper” programs — like this recently published one from Maryland by Abigail Burman and Simon Haeder — to better evaluate whether plans are offering adequate access to physicians. We absolutely need people to have coverage, but it needs to be more than just a card in their wallet.
The formal end of the pandemic could swell the ranks of uninsured children by 6 million or more as temporary reforms to Medicaid are lifted.
Why it matters: Gaps in coverage could limit access to needed care and widen health disparities, by hitting lower-income families and children of color the hardest, experts say.
The big picture: A requirement that states keep Medicaid beneficiaries enrolled during the public health emergency in order to get more federal funding is credited with preventing a spike in uninsured adults and kids during the crisis.
Children are the biggest eligibility group in Medicaid, especially in the 12 states that haven’t expanded their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act.
The lifting of the public health emergency, which was just extended to July 15, will lead states to determine whether their Medicaid enrollees are still eligible for coverage — a complicated process that could result in millions of Americans being removed from the program.
That would more than double the number of uninsured kids, which stood at 4.4 million in 2019.
“It is a stark, though we believe conservative, estimate,” said Joan Alker, the center’s executive director. “There are a lot of children on Medicaid.”
Between the lines: Not all of the Medicaid enrollees who are removed from the program would become uninsured. But parents and their children could be headed down different paths if their household income has risen even slightly.
Adults who’ve returned to work may be able to get insurance through their employer. Others could get coverage through the ACA marketplace, though it’s unclear whether that would come the COVID-inspired extra financial assistance that’s now being offered.
Most kids would be headed for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Alker said — a prospect that can entail added red tape and the payment of premiums or an annual enrollment fee, depending on the state.
What we’re watching: Changes in children’s coverage could be most pronounced in Texas, Florida and Georgia — the biggest non-Medicaid expansion states, which have higher rates of uninsured children than the national average.
Congress could still require continuous Medicaid coverage, the way the House did when it passed the sweeping social policy package that stalled in the Senate over cost concerns.
CMS’ Office of the Actuary projects a smaller decline in Medicaid enrollment than some health policy experts are predicting — and the Biden administration continues to move people deemed ineligible for Medicaid onto ACA plans, Raymond James analyst Chris Meekins noted in a recent report on the unwinding of the public health emergency.
President Joe Biden proposed a change in federal regulations April 5 to expand health coverage to millions of people through the Affordable Care Act.
The proposal aims to close what is known as the “family glitch,” according to a press release.
People who do not have access to affordable health coverage through their employers can qualify for subsidies to purchase coverage through the ACA marketplace. The federal definition of affordable employer-provided coverage is only for single individuals and not for family members, meaning about 5 million people are ineligible for the marketplace subsidy.
To fix the glitch, the proposal directs the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service to allow family members of employees who are offered affordable self-only coverage but unaffordable family coverage to qualify for the subsidies to purchase family health coverage through the ACA marketplace. If the rule is approved, an estimated 200,000 uninsured people would gain coverage, and nearly 1 million would see their coverage become more affordable.
President Biden will also sign an executive order Tuesday directing agencies to find ways to make coverage more affordable for more people.