Five takeaways on the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision

Obamacare Returns as Galvanizing Issue After Ginsburg Death and Barrett  Nomination - The New York Times

In what has become something of a Washington tradition, the Supreme Court again upheld the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, in the third major case from Republican challengers to reach the high court. 

The margin this time was larger, 7-2, as the High Court appears less and less interested in revisiting the health care law through the judiciary. 

Democrats hailed the ruling as a boost to their signature law, and Republicans were left to figure out a path forward on health care amid another defeat. 

Here are five takeaways:

This could be the last gasp of repeal efforts

It is impossible to ever fully rule out another lawsuit challenging the health law or another repeal push if Republicans win back Congress. 

But after more than 10 years of fighting the Affordable Care Act, GOP efforts at fighting the law are seriously deflated, as many Republicans themselves acknowledge. 

“It’s been my public view for some time that the Affordable Care Act is largely baked into the health care system in a way that it’s unlikely to change or be eliminated,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of Senate GOP leadership. 

Asked if he still wanted to repeal and replace the law, which was the GOP rallying cry for years, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said instead, “I think I want to make sure it works,” before attacking former President Obama’s promises about the law’s benefits. 

Even Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who helped bring the lawsuit against the health law as attorney general of Missouri, said Thursday that the Supreme Court had made clear “they’re not going to entertain a constitutional challenge to the ACA.”

Supporters of the law said it is now even more entrenched, despite years of GOP attacks

“The war appears to be over and the Affordable Care Act has won,” said Stan Dorn, senior fellow at the health care advocacy group Families USA. 

Still, not all Republicans are throwing in the towel on at least verbally attacking the law. 

“The ruling does not change the fact that Obamacare failed to meet its promises and is hurting hard-working American families,” said House GOP leaders Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Steve Scalise (La.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.). 

And there is at least one ACA-related lawsuit still working its way through the lower courts. Kelley v. Becerra challenges provisions of the health law around insurance plans covering preventive care including birth control.

The Supreme Court was fairly united 

The margin of victory for the health law was fairly large, with even more conservative justices such as Clarence ThomasAmy Coney BarrettBrett Kavanaugh and John Roberts ruling to uphold the law, joining the opinion from liberal Justice Stephen Breyer

The court’s other two liberals, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, also joined the majority of seven. Two conservatives, Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, dissented and would have struck down the law. 

Through the three major Supreme Court cases on ObamaCare, the margin of victory has risen from 5-4 to 6-3 to 7-2. 

“There’s a real message there about the Supreme Court’s willingness to tolerate these kinds of lawsuits,” Andy Pincus, a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, said of the growing margin of victory. 

The case was decided on fairly technical grounds. The Court ruled that the challengers did not have standing to sue, given that the penalty for not having health insurance at the center of the case had been reduced to zero, so it was not causing any actual harm that could be the basis for a lawsuit. 

Republicans did get some vindication in that Democrats had fiercely attacked Barrett during her confirmation hearings for being a vote to overturn the health law, when in fact she ended up voting to maintain the law. 

The ACA is stabilizing

The early years of the Affordable Care Act were marked with the turbulence of a website that failed at launch, premium increases, and major insurers dropping out of the markets given financial losses. 

Now, though, the markets are far more stable. For example, 78 percent of ACA enrollees now have the choice of three or more insurers, up from 57 percent in 2017, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

Democrats, now in control of the House, Senate and White House, were able to pass earlier this year expansions of the law’s financial assistance to help further bring down premium costs. 

The Biden administration announced earlier this month that a record 31 million people were covered under the ACA, including both the private insurance marketplaces and the expansion of Medicaid. 

“We are no longer in the Affordable Care Act, ‘How’s it going to go? Is it going to survive?’ mode,” said Frederick Isasi, executive director of Families USA. “We really are in a whole new phase. It really is: ‘How do we improve it?’”

Republicans face questions on their health care message

The Republican health care message for years was summed up with the simple slogan “repeal and replace.

But now those efforts have failed in Congress, in 2017, and have failed for a third time in the courts. 

That leaves uncertainty about what the Republican health care message is. The party has famously struggled to unite around an alternative to the ACA, so there is no consensus alternative for the party to turn to. 

The statement from McCarthy, Scalise, and Stefanik calling the ACA “failed,” shows that party leaders are not fully ready to accept the law.

The leaders added that “House Republicans are committed to actually lowering health care costs,” which has been a possible area for the party to focus that is not simply about repealing the ACA. 

But any discussion of health care costs is fraught with complications. Republicans, for example, overwhelmingly oppose House Democrats’ legislation to allow the government to negotiate lower drug prices, arguing it would harm innovation from the pharmaceutical industry. 

Grassley reached a bipartisan deal on somewhat less sweeping drug pricing legislation with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in 2019, but that bill went too far for many Republicans as well. 

Democrats want to go farther, but face an uphill climb

With the ACA further entrenched, and control of the House, Senate and White House, Democrats are looking at ways to build on the health law. 

The main health care proposal from the presidential campaign, a government-run “public option” for health insurance, has faded from the conversation and is not expected to be a part of a major legislative package on infrastructure and other priorities Democrats are pushing for this year. 

While the health care industry has largely made its peace with the ACA, pushing for a public option or lowering health care costs means taking on a fight with powerful industry groups. 

Progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have instead poured their energy into expanding Medicare benefits to include dental, vision, and hearing coverage, and lowering the eligibility age to 60. 

Allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices also could make it into the package.

“Now, we’re going to try to make it bigger and better — establish, once and for all, affordable health care as a basic right of every American citizen,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.). “What a day.”

MedPAC: Overhaul MA payments and streamline CMMI models

Two influential advisory groups sent recommendations to Congress calling for a revamp of how health plans are paid in the lucrative Medicare Advantage program, culling how many models CMS tests and curbing high-cost drug approvals.

By many measures, the MA program has been thriving. Enrollment and participation has continued to grow, and in 2021, MA plans’ bids to provide the Medicare benefit declined to a record low: Just 87% of comparable fee-for-service spending in their markets.

But despite that relative efficiency, MA contracting isn’t saving Medicare moneyactually, in the 35 years Medicare managed care has been active, it’s never resulted in net savings for the cash-strapped program, James Mathews, executive director of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, told reporters in a Tuesday briefing.

MedPAC estimates Medicare actually spends 4% more per capita for beneficiaries in MA plans than those in FFS under the existing benchmark policy.

To save money, Medicare could change how the benchmark, the maximum payment amount for plans, is adjusted for geographic variation, MedPAC said.

Under current policy, Medicare pays MA plans more if they cover an area with lower FFS spending, despite most plans bidding below FFS in these areas. At the same time, plans in areas where FFS spending is higher bid at a lower level relative to their benchmark, and wind up getting higher rebates — the difference between the bid and the benchmark — as a result.

“Because the rebate dollars must be used to provide extra benefits, large rebates result in plans offering a disproportionate level of extra benefits,” MedPAC wrote in its annual report to Congress. “Moreover, as MA rebates increase, a smaller share of those rebates is used for cost-sharing and premium reductions — benefits that have more transparent value and provide an affordable alternative to Medigap coverage.”

The group recommended rebalancing the MA benchmark policy to use a relatively equal blend of per-capita FFS spending in a local area and standardized national FFS spending, which would reduce variation in local benchmarks, and use a rebate of at least 75%. Currently, a plan’s rebate depends on its star rating, and ranges from 65% to 70%.

MedPAC also suggested a discount rate of at least 2% to reduce local and national blended spending amounts.

The group’s simulations suggest the changes would have minimal impact on plan participation or MA enrollees, but could lead to savings in Medicare of about 2 percentage points, relative to current policy.

Finding savings in Medicare, even small ones, is integral for the program’s future, policy experts say. The Congressional Budget Office expects the trust fund that finances Medicare’s hospital benefit will become insolvent by 2024, as — despite perennial warnings from watchdogs and budget hawks — lawmakers have kicked the can on the insurance program’s snowballing deficit for years.

Fewer and more targeted alternative payment models

MedPAC also recommended CMS streamline its portfolio of alternative payment models, implementing a smaller and more targeted suite of the temporary demonstrations designed to work together.

CMS is already undergoing a review of the models, meant to inject more value into healthcare payments, following calls from legislators for more oversight in the program. The agency doesn’t have the most stellar track record: Of the 54 models its Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation has trialed since it was launched a decade ago, just four have been permanently encoded in Medicare.

New CMMI head Elizabeth Fowler said earlier this month the agency will likely enact more mandatory models to force the shift toward value, as the ongoing review has resulted in more conscious choices about where it should invest.

In its report, MedPAC pointed out many of CMMI’s models generated gross savings for Medicare, before performance bonuses to providers were shelled out. That suggests the models have the power to change provider practice patterns, but their effects are tricky to measure. Many providers are in multiple models at once, and the same beneficiaries can be shared across models, too.

Additionally, some models set up conflicting incentives. Mathews gave the example of accountable care organizations participating in one model to reduce spending on behalf of an assigned population relative to a benchmark, but its provider participants could also be in certain bundled models with incentives to keep the cost of care per episode low — but not reduce the overall number of episodes themselves.

“The risk of these kinds of inconsistent incentives would be minimized again if the models were developed in a manner where they would work together at the outset,” Mathews said. MedPAC doesn’t have guidance on a specific target number of alternative models, but said it should be a smaller and more strategic number.

Curbing high-cost drugs in Medicaid

Another advisory board, on the Medicaid safety-net insurance program, also released its annual report on Tuesday, recommending Congress mitigate the effect of pricey specialty drugs on state Medicaid programs.

High-cost specialty drugs are increasingly driving Medicaid spending and creating financial pressure on states. The Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC) didn’t recommend Congress change the requirement that Medicaid cover the drugs, but recommended legislators look into increasing the minimum rebate percentage on drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration through the accelerated approval pathway, until the clinical benefit of the drugs is verified.

The accelerated approval pathway, which can be used for a drug for a serious or life-threatening illness that provides a therapeutic advantage over existing treatments, allows drugs to come to market more quickly. States have aired concerns about paying high list prices for such drugs when they don’t have a verified clinical benefit.

That pathway has faced growing scrutiny in recent days in the wake of the FDA’s high-profile and controversial approval of Biogen’s aducanumab for Alzheimer’s disease.

Several advisors to the FDA have resigned over the decision, as it’s unclear if aducanumab actually has a clinical benefit. What aducanumab does have is an estimated price tag of $56,000 a year, which could place severe stress on taxpayer-funded insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid if widely prescribed.

MEDPAC also recommended an increase in the additional inflationary rebate on drugs that receive approval from the FDA under the accelerated approval pathway if the manufacturer hasn’t completed the postmarketing confirmatory trial after a specified number of years. Once a drug receives traditional approval, the inflationary rebate would revert back to the standard amounts.

The recommendations would only apply to the price Medicaid pays for the drug and doesn’t change the program’s obligation to cover it.

One Medical buying Medicare-focused Iora in $2.1B deal

Announcing Iora | One Medical

Dive Brief:

  • Google-backed One Medical is acquiring Medicare-focused primary healthcare chain Iora Health for $2.1 billion in an all-stock trade deal, the companies announced Monday.
  • The buy will give One Medical presence in 28 markets, covering about 40% of the U.S. population and is expected to generate annual revenue at $350 million by 2025. The deal will add about $700 billion in total addressable market, according to an investor presentation.
  • Under the terms of the deal, which is expected to close in the late third quarter or fourth quarter of this year, Iora stockholders will own about 27% of the combined company. One person from Iora will join One Medical’s board and Iora co-founder and CEO Rushika Fernandopulle will become One Medical’s chief innovation officer.

Dive Insight:

The acquisition aligns two key players in part of the value-based care movement that eschews traditional payer-provider arrangements in favor of a concierge membership model. Iora’s concentration in the Medicare population and related participation in CMS’ direct contracting model could be key reasons for coming under One Medical’s sights.

Jefferies analysts said they viewed the transaction as positive, particularly considering both companies’ tech and data capabilities. “Given tech orientation and emphasis on outcomes, we expect substantial derivative value from combining data and developing better treatment programs with superior outcomes across [longitudinal] care. We see this as a clear clinical and applied advantage,” they wrote.

Both companies base their business on value-based models, which some in the industry worry have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic as cash-strapped providers avoid the risk of models not based on fee-for-service. The Biden administration’s director at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation said recently the movement is at “a critical juncture” and that more mandatory models are likely forthcoming.

One Medical has faced challenges as of late, after a first quarter that saw losses double what was expected and a controversy over COVID-19 vaccine distribution that sparked a congressional investigation. The company, however, has forged ahead in deals, including a new partnership with Baylor Scott & White.

And on the Q1 call with investors, executives highlighted a membership increase of 31% year over year.

One Medical, founded in 2007, lead the pack of recent healthcare IPOs, going public in January 2020.

The company touts its direct-to-consumer model buts also contracts directly with employers and partners with several health systems. CFO Bjorn Thaler told Healthcare Dive at the time of the IPO its pitch to investors focused on highlighting a differentiated model.

“[W]e provide the member with a very, very valuable service. They don’t have to wait 29 days to get care. They can get care oftentimes in an instant, digitally,” he said.

Boston-based Iora, which was founded in 2011, has raised nearly $350 million over seven funding rounds, according to Crunchbase. It has contracts with major payers including UnitedHealthcare, Cigna and Humana.

The deal extends One Medical into full-risk Medicare reimbursement. Iora began the direct contracting model in April across all its markets. The program ties reimbursement to spending and quality for all Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries across a geographic region.

About 60% of Iora’s members are in the fast-growing Medicare Advantage program, which has now reached about 40% of the Medicare population.

Iora had expected revenue this year to reach nearly $300 million and as of the first quarter had 38,000 members, compared to nearly 600,000 members at One Medical, according to the investor presentation.

One Medical stock was trending slightly down in early morning trading Monday.

ACLA appeals dismissal of PAMA lawsuit, pushes legislative fixes

Dive Brief:

  • A trade group representing LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics has appealed the dismissal of its lawsuit challenging the implementation of the Protecting Access to Medicare Act, which sets laboratory payment rates according to market data reported by industry.
  • Federal district courts have previously dismissed the lawsuit, most recently in March, but the American Clinical Laboratory Association continues to argue that PAMA is a case of “harmful regulatory overreach” that forces an “unsustainable reimbursement model” on its members.
  • ACLA is targeting PAMA through the courts while continuing to push for Congress to change the law. The trade group said that, regardless of the outcome of the appeal, a legislative solution is needed to a law it argues has led to artificially low Medicare rates.

Dive Insight:+

ACLA began its legal case against the implementation of PAMA late in 2017, weeks after the release of the final private payer rate-based clinical laboratory fee schedule. As ACLA sees it, HHS diverged from PAMA directives by exempting “significant categories and large numbers of laboratories” from reporting market data, meaning “Medicare rates will not be consistent with market-based rates.”

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the case on the grounds that ruling on the establishment of PAMA payment amounts was barred by the statute. ACLA successfully appealed that ruling in 2019. However, the lower court again dismissed the case in late March.

The trade group said the court relied “on the same conclusions that the D.C. Circuit [appeals court] rejected.” The court ruling said the case was dismissed “for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”

ACLA’s filing of a notice of appeal restarts a process that could take months to play out. The last time the trade group appealed, there was a nine-month wait between the submission of a notice and the delivery of the opinion of the court.

While preparing its opening brief and then waiting on the decision of the appeals court, ACLA will try to tackle PAMA from another angle.

“ACLA will continue to work with policymakers to establish a Medicare Clinical Laboratory Fee Schedule that is truly representative of the market and supports continued innovation and access to vital laboratory services, as Congress originally intended,” Julie Khani, president of ACLA, said in a statement.

Congress has already delayed the next set of fee cuts until 2022. ACLA said the cuts will reduce rates for certain tests used to diagnose chronic diseases by 15%, potentially threatening access to testing. Rates were previously cut in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Talking to investors in April, LabCorp CEO Adam Schechter said he expects the 2022 impact to “be about the same as it was in 2019, around the $100 million mark.”

Few healthcare surprises in Biden’s FY22 budget

Healthcare Spending Cuts Proposed in Federal Budget Deal

https://mailchi.mp/f42a034b349e/the-weekly-gist-may-28-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

President Biden released his budget proposal for fiscal year 2022 on Friday, clocking in at a whopping $6T of federal spending on programs aimed at making sweeping investments in infrastructure, education, and social services, and banking on hefty government borrowing at low interest rates to fuel a major overhaul of the American economy.

The proposal includes big increases in discretionary spending, including raising funding for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by 23.4 percent, to $133.7B, the largest increase in almost two decades. The budget bolsters funding for a variety of healthcare programs, but notably includes specifics on only two major increases in mandatory healthcare spending: making permanent the temporary subsidy increases for individual coverage that are part of the American Rescue Plan Act ($163B); and expanding home- and community-based services in Medicaid ($400B). Both of those proposals were announced earlier this year as part of Biden’s twin recovery packages for infrastructure and social programs.
 
Notably absent, apart from statements of general support, are any details for implementing a “public option” health plan, or for lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60—two healthcare proposals that figured prominently in Biden’s campaign platform. Nor are there specifics on lowering spending on prescription drugs, another key area of interest among lawmakers. Like all presidential budgets, the Biden document is simply a statement of priorities, providing a starting point for negotiations in Congress.

But the relatively narrow scope of the healthcare proposals—as hefty as their price tags are—indicates that the White House is likely not willing to throw down over a major overhaul of coverage, at least while Congress is so closely divided. While there are bills afloat in both the House and Senate to more aggressively expand coverage, we’d expect this summer’s legislative horse-trading to result in something resembling what’s in the President’s budget—and not much more. 

“Medicare at 60” and a national public option are likely on hold, at least until after the 2022 midterm elections.

Hospital giants bet big on hospital at home

Mayo Clinic Kaiser Permanente invest in Medically Home

This week Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente announced a $100M joint investment in Boston-based Medically Home, a provider of virtual hospital solutions. Founded in 2016, Medically Home is one of a handful of companies that coordinate with hospitals and doctors to provide in-home clinician visits, round-the-clock communications and monitoring, and access to support services to enable hospital-level care in the home. While interest has surged during the pandemic, the first hospital at home programs launched in the 1990s, and the model has a proven track record of delivering care that is lower cost and clinically equivalent (or better), when compared to a traditional hospital admission. 

A confluence of market forces has driven rapid expansion in the model across the past year. Health systems are increasingly looking to hospital at home to address emerging consumer demand for care outside the hospital, and achieve the longer-term goals of providing flexible, lower-cost acute care capacity. And payers are looking to add hospital at home capabilities to their growing virtual and home-based care platforms to manage acutely ill Medicare Advantage beneficiaries in a lower-cost care setting.

Early adopters estimate that as many as 30 percent of patients admitted to hospitals today could be candidates for treatment at home. The large infusion of funding from Kaiser and Mayo will enable Medically Home to scale across the US, and also provides an endorsement of, and commitment to, the care model from these respected systems, which may help convince physicians who remain skeptical.

Coupled with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ waiver program, allowing payment for home-hospital care, this investment should drive a new wave of growth in the model—and will likely make hospital at home a routine part of the care options available to patients.

For one more year, Medicare says there is no Central Jersey, saving hospitals $100M

https://www.app.com/story/news/health/2021/05/01/central-jersey-disappears-medicare-says-saving-nj-hospitals-100-m/4892942001/

Medicare saves hospitals more than $100M by denying Central Jersey

Hospitals in Monmouth, Ocean and Middlesex counties will continue to receive New York City-level reimbursement rates from Medicare for another year, avoiding more than $100 million in potential cuts, New Jersey lawmakers said Friday.

The decision by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gives the hospitals a year to convince the Biden administration that for them, at least, there is no such thing as Central Jersey.

CMS released its decision as part of its final rules for fiscal 2022. It delayed a Trump-era proposal to move the hospitals out of the New York-Newark-Jersey City region and into the newly crafted New Brunswick-Lakewood core-based statistical area.

Any Central New Jersey designation usually is met locally with pride and joy, but this move came with a steep price. Hospitals’ Medicare reimbursements are tied in part to their labor costs. And the labor costs in their new region are about 17% lower than their old region.

The cuts in reimbursement rates would have saved money for federal taxpayers, but they also would have hit local hospitals hard. The industry during the pandemic was faced with higher expenses and forced to delay lucrative elective procedures. 

As a result, 41% of New Jersey hospitals were losing money, according to the New Jersey Hospital Association, a trade group.

The group on Friday thanked the state’s congressional delegation for its help.

“NJHA has strongly advocated for the reversal of this ill-advised policy since it was first implemented last year, and this delay in further cuts in critical health care dollars to our state is welcomed news,” Cathy Bennett, the association’s president and chief executive officer, said. 

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., both Democrats, led the campaign to stop the new classification at least until the 2020 U.S. Census data was released.

In a letter a month ago to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, the lawmakers said hospitals moved to the new statistical areas would have lost revenue, making it tougher to compete with hospitals in New York and northern New Jersey to attract skilled workers.

“This federal support will benefit patients by allowing our top-notch hospitals to retain and hire the best and the brightest,” Pascrell said in a statement Friday.

Medicare’s proposed payment rule benefits hospitals

https://mailchi.mp/097beec6499c/the-weekly-gist-april-30-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released its 2022 Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS) proposed rule this week. Overall, the rule brings good news for hospitals: Medicare reimbursement rates are slated to increase by 2.8 percent, resulting in a $2.5B payment boost to the industry.

In another win, hospitals will no longer be required to disclose their contract terms with Medicare Advantage (MA) insurers. Hospitals had previously been mandated by the 2021 rule to report median, payer-specific, negotiated charges for MA insurers on their Medicare cost reports. Medicare’s goal was to use this data to create a new, market-based, inpatient reimbursement methodology—an effort which has also been tabled, at least for now.

Led by the American Hospital Association, hospitals have been embroiled in lengthy legal challenges over a variety of CMS price transparency requirements, maintaining they are neither beneficial for consumers, nor helpful in lowering healthcare costs. 

It’s too early to tell whether this step back from price transparency, which was a key goal of the Trump administration, signals anything about the Biden administration’s prioritiesit’s possible CMS may just be slowing down the effort in the wake of the pandemic.

Other highlights of the proposed rule include funding 1,000 more residency slots over the next five years, and extending payments for COVID-19 treatments to the end of 2022, as CMS expects COVID patients will need care beyond the duration of public health emergency. The agency also proposed several changes to its readmissions and other value-based purchasing programs, to ensure hospitals aren’t penalized by COVID-related impacts on quality measures.

Comments on the proposed rule are due by June 28th.

President Biden lays out his sweeping legislative agenda

https://mailchi.mp/097beec6499c/the-weekly-gist-april-30-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Legislative Agenda

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, delivered on the eve of his 100th day in office, President Biden laid out his vision for two major legislative proposals to follow the $1.9T stimulus package he signed into law last month.

The first, described as an “infrastructure” bill, focuses largely on investing in transportation-related improvements, building projects, and “green” upgrades to the nation’s energy grid, along with a $400B investment in home-based care for the elderly and people with disabilities—which amounts to over 17 percent of the package’s $2.3T price tag.

The second, which he unveiled in Wednesday’s speech, is a $1.8T “families” bill, is largely aimed at expanding childcare subsidies, early childhood education, paid family and medical leave, and educational investments. Included in that package is $200B to extend the temporary subsidies—approved as part of last month’s stimulus law—for those seeking health insurance coverage on the individual marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Notably absent from either proposal were two categories of healthcare reform that received much focus and airtime during last year’s election campaign: reducing the cost of prescription drugs and lowering the eligibility age for Medicare to 60 or below. Given the closely divided makeup of the new Congress, and the relatively moderate position staked out by the Biden administration on healthcare issues (with a bias toward bolstering the ACA rather than pursuing sweeping changes), we’re not surprised to see the Medicare expansion go unmentioned. 

But the bipartisan popularity of lowering prescription drug costs seems like a missed opportunity for Biden, who encouraged the Congress to return to it separately, later in the year. We’ll see. For now, with even some Democrats expressing concern about the $4.1T price tag of Biden’s proposals, we would be surprised if all $600B of the healthcare-related spending makes it to the final legislation. In particular, our guess is that some portion of the home-care spending will get traded away in favor of other components of the package. Expect negotiations to be intense.
 

Out-of-network payments in Medicare Advantage

What Are the Causes of Surprise Medical Bills?

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 options. One-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.

Figure 1: MA HMO Out-of-Network Payments

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.

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