After Zoe Friedland became pregnant with her first child, she was picky about choosing a doctor to guide her through delivery.
“With so many unpredictable things that can happen with a pregnancy, I wanted someone I could trust,” Friedland said. That person also had to be in the health insurance network of Cigna, the insurer that covers Friedland through her husband’s employer.
Friedland found an OB-GYN she liked, who told her that she delivered only at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, California, a part of San Francisco-based Dignity Health. Friedland and her husband, Bert Kaufman, live in Menlo Park, about 5 miles from the hospital, so that was not a problem for them — until Dec. 12.
That’s the day Friedland and Kaufman received a letter from Cigna informing them their care at Sequoia might not be covered after Jan. 1. The insurance company had not signed a contract for 2020 with the hospital operator, which meant Sequoia and many other Dignity medical facilities around the state would no longer be in Cigna’s network in the new year.
Suddenly, it looked as if having their first baby at Sequoia could cost Friedland and Kaufman tens of thousands of dollars.
“I was honestly shocked that this could even happen because it hadn’t entered my mind as a possibility,” Friedland said.
She and her husband are among an estimated 16,600 people caught in a financial dispute between two gigantic health care companies. Cigna is one of the largest health insurance companies in the nation, and Dignity Health has 31 hospitals in California, as well as seven in Arizona and three in Nevada. The contract fight affects Dignity’s California and Nevada hospitals, but not the ones in Arizona.
“The problem is price,” Cigna said in a statement just before the old contract expired on Dec. 31. “Dignity thinks that Cigna customers should pay substantially more than what is normal in the region, and we think that’s just wrong.”
Tammy Wilcox, a senior vice president at Dignity, said, “At a time when many nonprofit community hospitals are struggling, Cigna is making billions of dollars in profits each year. Yet Cigna is demanding that it pay local hospitals even less.”
In 2018, the most recent full year for which earnings data is available, Cigna generated operating income of $3.6 billion on revenue of approximately $48 billion. Dignity Health reported operating income of $529 million on revenue of $14.2 billion in its 2018 fiscal year.
It’s possible Cigna and Dignity can still reach an agreement. Both sides said they will keep trying, though no talks are scheduled.
Disagreements between insurers and health systems that leave patients stranded are a perennial problem in U.S. health care. Glenn Melnick, a professor of health economics at the University of Southern California, said such disputes, which are disruptive to consumers, are often settled.
Melnick believes Dignity is using an “all or nothing” strategy in contract negotiations, meaning either all its facilities are in the insurer’s network or none are.
“This allows them to increase their market power to get higher prices, which is not necessarily good for consumers,” Melnick said.
Dignity replied in an emailed statement: “We do not require payers to contract with all or none of Dignity Health’s providers. We do try to make sure patients have access to the full range of Dignity Health services and facilities in each of our communities.”
Dignity faces a number of legal and financial challenges while it works to implement a February 2019 merger with Englewood, Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiatives that created one of the nation’s largest Catholic hospital systems — known as CommonSpirit Health.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra approved the deal with conditions, including that Dignity’s California hospitals spend $10 million in the first three years on services for people experiencing homelessness and offer free care to more low-income patients.
The requirement to treat more poor patients at no charge followed a period, from 2011 to 2016, in which Dignity’s charity care declined about 35% while its net income was $3.2 billion.
Last October, CommonSpirit announced an operating loss of $582 million on revenue of nearly $29 billion for the 2019 fiscal year, its first annual financial statement after the merger took effect. Much of the loss was due to merger-related costs and special charges.
The same month, Dignity completed a five-year “corporate integrity agreement” with the U.S. Office of the Inspector General following an investigation into how it billed the government for hospital inpatient stays. Dignity said it “fully complied” with the agreement.
Dignity is also defending itself in a class-action lawsuit alleging that it bills uninsured patients at grossly inflated rates even though it claims to provide “affordable” care at “the lowest possible cost.”
More recently, an appeals court judge ruled Dignity could not charge higher prices — often a lot higher than state-set rates — for treating enrollees of L.A. Care’s Medi-Cal health plan at its Northridge Hospital Medical Center.
Dignity disagreed with the court’s ruling in that case, saying that although the Northridge facility did not have a contract with L.A. Care, many of the health plan’s enrollees who initially sought emergency treatment there stayed in the hospital for additional care after they had been stabilized. The hospital “seeks appropriate reimbursement for providing this care,” Dignity said.
If Dignity does not reach an agreement with Cigna, its hospitals, outpatient surgery centers and medical groups in most of California will soon be out-of-network for many Cigna enrollees. In-network coverage for Open Access (OAP) and Preferred Provider (PPO) ended Feb. 1, and for HMO patients it is set to end April 1.
Peter Welch, president and general manager for Cigna in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, said Cigna can provide “adequate access” to other hospitals and doctors.
Certain Cigna enrollees can apply to continue visiting Dignity facilities and doctors under California’s Continuity of Care law, enacted in 2014. Eligible enrollees include patients with chronic conditions, those already scheduled for pre-authorized services, people in need of emergency care and pregnant women in their third trimester.
Friedland and Kaufman applied, hoping she would be able to continue seeing her Dignity-affiliated OB-GYN at in-network rates.
On Jan. 22, less than a month from Friedland’s Feb. 15 due date, they received written confirmation that their request had been approved. They wouldn’t have to shop for a new doctor or face stiff medical bills after all.
Early Tuesday evening, Friedland gave birth to a baby girl, Eliza, who entered the world 11 days earlier than expected, weighing in at 7 pounds, 3 ounces.
“While the ordeal was stressful, and the communication fraught, we were happy to receive confirmation of continuity of care and that it ended in the best possible way — with the birth of our healthy baby daughter with the provider where we established care,” Kaufman said. “For the sake of those caught in the middle and now having to start relationships with new health care providers, we hope the two sides can come to an agreement.”
California is known for progressive everything, including its health care policies, and, just a few weeks into 2020, state leaders aren’t disappointing.
The politicians’ health care bills and budget initiatives are heavy on ideas and dollars — and on opposition from powerful industries. They put California, once again, at the forefront.
The proposals would lower prescription drug costs, increase access to health coverage, and restrict and tax vaping. But most lawmakers agree that homelessness will dominate the agenda, including proposals to get people into housing while treating some accompanying physical and mental health problems.
“This budget doubles down on the war on unaffordability — from taking on health care costs and having the state produce our own generic drugs to expanding the use of state properties to build housing quickly,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a letter to the legislature, which accompanied the $222.2 billion budget proposal he unveiled last Friday. About a third of that money would be allocated to health and human services programs.
But even with a Democratic supermajority in the legislature, these proposals aren’t a slam-dunk. “There are other factors that come into play, like interest groups with strong presence in the Capitol,” including Big Pharma and hospitals, said Shannon McConville, a senior researcher at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Newsom’s plan to create a state generic drug label is perhaps his boldest health care proposal in this year’s budget, as it would make California the first state to enter the drug-manufacturing business. It may also be his least concrete.
Newsom wants the state to contract with one or more generics manufacturers to make drugs that would be available to Californians at lower prices. Newsom’s office provided little detail about how this would work or which drugs would be produced. The plan’s cost and potential savings are also unspecified. (Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, proposed a similar plan at the federal level.)
Because the generics market is already competitive and generic drugs make up a small portion of overall drug spending, a state generic-drug offering would likely result in only modest savings, said Geoffrey Joyce, director of health policy at USC’s Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics.
However, it could make a difference for specific drugs such as insulin, he said, which nearly doubled in price from 2012 to 2016. “It would reduce that type of price gouging,” he said.
Representatives of Big Pharma said they’re more concerned about a Newsom proposal to establish a single market for drug pricing in the state. Under this system, drug manufacturers would have to bid to sell their medications in California, and would have to offer prices at or below prices offered to any other state or country.
Californians could lose access to existing treatments and groundbreaking drugs, warned Priscilla VanderVeer, vice president for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry’s lobbying arm.
This proposal could “let the government decide what drugs patients are going to get,” she said. “When the governor sets an artificially low price for drugs, that means there will be less money to invest in innovation.”
Newsom’s drug pricing proposals build on his executive order from last year directing the state to negotiate drug prices for the roughly 13 million enrollees of Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income residents. He also ordered a study of how state agencies could band together — and, eventually, with private purchasers such as health plans — to buy prescription drugs in bulk.
California has the largest homeless population in the nation, estimated at more than 151,000 people in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 72% of the state’s homeless slept outside or in cars rather than in shelters or temporary housing.
Newsom has asked for $1.4 billion in the 2020-21 state budget for homelessness, most of which would go to housing and health care. For instance, $695 million would boost health care and social services for homeless people via Medi-Cal. The money would fund programs such as recuperative care for homeless people who need a place to stay after they’ve been discharged from the hospital, and rental assistance if a person’s homelessness is tied to high medical costs.
A separate infusion of $24.6 million would go to the Department of State Hospitals for a pilot program to keep some people with mental health needs out of state hospitals and in community programs and housing.
California has some of the strongest protections against surprise medical bills in the nation, but millions of residents remain vulnerable to exorbitant charges because the laws don’t cover all insurance plans.
Surprise billing occurs when a patient receives care from a hospital or provider outside of their insurance network, and then the doctor or hospital bills the patient for the amount insurance didn’t cover.
Last year, state Assembly member David Chiu (D-San Francisco) introduced legislation that would have limited how much hospitals could charge privately insured patients for out-of-network emergency services. The bill would have required hospitals to work directly with health plans on billing, leaving the patients responsible only for their in-network copayments, coinsurance and deductibles.
But he pulled the measure because of strong opposition from hospitals, which criticized it as a form of rate setting.
Chiu said he plans to resume the fight this year, likely with amendments that have not been finalized. But hospitals remain opposed to the provision that would cap charges, a provision that Chiu says is essential.
“We continue to fully support banning surprise medical bills, but we believe it can be done without resorting to rate setting,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, a spokesperson for the California Hospital Association.
Medi-Cal For Unauthorized Immigrants
California is the first state to offer full Medicaid benefits to income-eligible residents up to age 26, regardless of their immigration status.
Now Democrats are proposing another first: California could become the first to open Medicaid to adults ages 65 and up who are in the country illegally.
Even though Medicaid is a joint state-federal program, California must fund full coverage of unauthorized immigrants on its own.
Newsom set aside $80.5 million in his 2020-21 proposed budget to cover about 27,000 older adults in the first year. His office estimated ongoing costs would be about $350 million a year.
Republicans vocally oppose such proposals. “Expanding such benefits would make it more difficult to provide health care services for current Medi-Cal enrollees,” state Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) said in a prepared statement.
Dozens of California cities and counties have restricted the sale of flavored tobacco products in an effort to curb youth vaping.
But last year, state legislators punted on a statewide ban on flavored tobacco sales after facing pressure from the tobacco industry.
Now, state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) is back with his proposed statewide flavor ban, which may have more momentum this year. Since last summer, a mysterious vaping illness has sickened more than 2,600 people nationwide, leading to 60 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In California, at least 199 people have fallen ill and four have died.
Hill’s bill would ban retail sales of flavored products related to electronic cigarettes, e-hookahs and e-pipes, including menthol flavor. It also would prohibit the sale of all flavored smokable and nonsmokable tobacco products, such as cigars, cigarillos, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, snuff and tobacco edibles.
Newsom has also called for a new tax on e-cigarette products — $2 for each 40 milligrams of nicotine, on top of already existing tobacco taxes on e-cigarettes. The tax would have to be approved by the legislature as part of the budget process and could face heavy industry opposition.
Tobacco-related bills are usually heard in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, “and that is where a lot of tobacco legislation, quite frankly, dies,” said Assembly member Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), who supports vaping restrictions.
It is more than likely that Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election will propose some type of public health insurance plan. In one of two Commonwealth Fund–supported articles in Health Affairs discussing potential Democratic and Republican health care plans for the 2020 election, national health policy experts Sherry Glied and Jeanne Lambrew assess the potential impact and trade-offs of three approaches:
The authors find trade-offs in each type of public plan. First, a single-payer system would significantly increase the federal budget and require new taxes, a politically challenging prospect. On the other hand, federal spending might decrease if a public plan were added to the marketplace or if public elements were added to private plans. In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a public plan, following the same rules as private plans, would reduce federal spending by $158 billion over 10 years, while offering premiums 7 percent to 8 percent lower than private plans. A single-payer approach would lower administrative costs and profits, and likely reduce health care prices as well. By assuming control over the financing of health care, the federal government could reduce administrative complexity and fragmentation. On the flip side, the more than 175 million Americans who are privately insured would need to change insurance plans.
A public–private choice model would help ensure that an affordable health plan option is available to Americans. While politically appealing, this option presents implementation challenges: covered benefits, payment rates, and risk-adjustments all need to be carefully managed to ensure a fair but competitive marketplace. A targeted choice option might be adopted by candidates interested in strengthening the ACA marketplaces in specific regions or for specific groups (as with the Medicare at 55 Act). It would benefit Americans whose current access to affordable coverage is limited, but the same technical challenges associated with a more comprehensive choice model would apply.
Finally, to lower prices for privately insured individuals, public plan tools such as deployment of Medicare-based rates could be applied to private insurance, either across the board or specifically for high-cost claims, prescription drugs, or other services. The major challenge here is setting prices that would appropriately compensate providers.
Under the ACA, the percentage of Americans who had health insurance had reached an all-time high (91 percent) in 2016, an all-time high, and preexisting health conditions ceased to be an obstacle to affordable insurance. But Americans remain concerned about high out-of-pocket spending and access to providers, and fears over losing preexisting-condition protections have grown. While most Democratic presidential candidates will likely defend the ACA and seek to strengthen it, most recognize that fortifying the law will not be enough to cover the remaining uninsured, rein in rising spending, and make health care more affordable.
While the health reform proposals of Democratic candidates in 2020 will likely differ dramatically from those of Republican candidates, recent grassroots support for the ACA’s preexisting condition clause may indicate a willingness by both political parties to support additional government intervention in private insurance markets.
Sutter Health, a 24-hospital system based in Sacramento, Calif., has agreed to pay $575 million to settle an antitrust case brought by employers and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
The settlement resolves allegations that Sutter Health violated California’s antitrust laws by using its market power to overcharge patients and employer-funded health plans. The class members alleged Sutter Health’s inflated prices led to $756 million in overcharges, according to Bloomberg Law.
Under the terms of the settlement, Sutter will pay $575 million to employers, unions and others covered under the class action. The health system will also be required to make several other changes, including limiting what it charges patients for out-of-network services, halting measurers that deny patients access to lower-cost health plans, and improving access to pricing, quality and cost information, according to a Dec. 20 release from Mr. Becerra.
To ensure Sutter is complying with the terms of the settlement, the health system will be required to cooperate with a court-approved compliance monitor for at least 10 years.
Mr. Becerra said the settlement, which he called “a game changer for restoring competition,” is a warning to other organizations.
“This first-in-the-nation comprehensive settlement should send a clear message to the markets: if you’re looking to consolidate for any reason other than efficiency that delivers better quality for a lower price, think again. The California Department of Justice is prepared to protect consumers and competition, especially when it comes to healthcare,” he said.
A Sutter spokesperson told The New York Times that the settlement did not acknowledge wrongdoing. “We were able to resolve this matter in a way that enables Sutter Health to maintain our integrated network and ability to provide patients with access to affordable, high-quality care,” said Flo Di Benedetto, Sutter’s senior vice president and general counsel, in a statement to The Times.
The settlement must be approved by the court. A hearing on the settlement is scheduled for Feb. 25, 2020.