Pandemic’s end could surge the number of uninsured kids

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.

What they’re saying: The end of the continuous coverage guarantee puts as many as 6.7 million children at very high risk of losing coverage, per Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families.

  • 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.

Credit monitoring companies are removing most medical debt from consumer credit reports

Spurred by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s investigation into how credit companies report medical debt, TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian—the country’s three largest credit bureaus, who keep records on 200M Americans—are revising how they report medical debt.

As a result, the companies could eliminate up to 70 percent of medical debt from consumers’ credit reports. Starting in July, medical debts paid after going to collections will no longer appear on credit reports, and unpaid debts won’t be added until a year after being sent to collections (instead of six months, per current policy). And beginning in 2023, medical debts of less than $500 will also be excluded from credit reports altogether.

The Gist:The poorest and sickest patients have been disproportionately saddled with the highest levels of medical debt. In 2017, 19 percent of US households carried medical debt, including many with private insurance. 

While these changes will help mitigate the impact of medical debt for some, they aren’t a fix to the larger underlying problem of rising healthcare costs and access to adequate health insurance coverage. 

Health Agency Preparing for Lapse in Extra ACA Subsidies

https://news.bloomberglaw.com/pharma-and-life-sciences/health-agency-preparing-for-lapse-in-extra-obamacare-subsidies?mkt_tok=ODUwLVRBQS01MTEAAAGDWuGQisFiXP1YU7ldhH-D-v-Qezz0Y7Ol85lQV_EWybFJCX5nhwm1xijPeqwqKvJ4KM_KHbGLJ6Tq5fpqr7aHTFGKPLChP3FMmQbI5dZoOR8W

  • Obamacare enrollment at a record-high 14.5 million
  • Congress may not fund premium subsidies in 2023

The Affordable Care Act marks its 12th anniversary Wednesday, and despite a record 14.5 million enrollees, the Biden administration is preparing for the possibility that millions could lose coverage next year.

The $1.9 trillion pandemic stimulus package (Public Law 117-2), signed March 2021, reduced Obamacare premiums to no more than 8.5% of income for eligible households and expanded premium subsidies to households earning more than 400% of the federal poverty level. The rescue plan also provided additional subsidies to help with out-of-pocket costs for low-income people. As a result, 2.8 million more consumers are receiving tax credits in 2022 compared to 2021.

But without congressional action, the subsidies—and the marketplace enrollment spikes they ushered in—could be lost in 2023. new HHS report released Wednesday, shows an estimated 3.4 million Americans would lose marketplace coverage and become uninsured if the premium tax credits aren’t extended beyond 2022.

In a briefing with reporters Tuesday, Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said her agency is “confident that Congress will really understand how important the subsidies were” to enrolling more people this year. The CMS would “pivot quickly,” however, to implement new policies and outreach plans if the subsidies aren’t extended as open enrollment for 2023 begins in November.

“That said, today and tomorrow we are celebrating the Affordable Care Act,” Brooks-LaSure added. “As part of that process, we’ve been reminding ourselves that sometimes it takes some time to pass legislation. And just like the Affordable Care Act took time, we’re confident that Congress is going to address these critical needs for the American people.”

After years of legal and political brawls that turned the landmark legislation into a political football, Obamacare “is at its strongest point ever,” Brooks-LaSure said. The 14.5 million total enrollees—those who extended coverage and those who signed up for the first time—is a 21% increase from last year. The number of new consumers during the 2022 open enrollment period increased by 20% to 3.1 million from 2.5 million in 2021.

This week, the Department of Health and Human Services will highlight the impact of the ACA and the Biden administration’s efforts to strengthen the law. The CMS recently announced a new special enrollment period opportunity for people with household incomes under 150% of the federal poverty level who are eligible for premium tax credits. The new special enrollment period will make it easier for low-income people to enroll in coverage throughout the year.

Troubled times could be around the corner, however, as millions of people with Medicaid coverage could become uninsured after the public health emergency ends. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Public Law 116-127), signed March 2020, states must maintain existing Medicaid enrollment until the end of the month that the public health emergency is lifted. Once the continuous enrollment mandate ends, states will resume Medicaid redeterminations and disenrollments for people who no longer meet the program’s requirements.

Dan Tsai, deputy administrator and director of the Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services at CMS, said the agency is working with states to make sure people who lose Medicaid coverage can be transferred into low- and no-cost Obamacare coverage.

“A substantial portion of individuals who will no longer be eligible for Medicaid will be eligible for other forms of coverage,” including marketplace coverage, Tsai told reporters Tuesday.

In a statement, President Joe Biden acknowledged the law’s great impact. “This law is the reason we have protections for pre-existing conditions in America. It is why women can no longer be charged more simply because they are women. It reduced prescription drug costs for nearly 12 million seniors. It allows millions of Americans to get free preventive screenings, so they can catch cancer or heart disease early—saving countless lives. And it is the reason why parents can keep children on their insurance plans until they turn 26.”

The Affordable Care Act: Twelve Years and Nine Lives Later

http://healthaffairs.activehosted.com/index.php?action=social&chash=de905148259ea27fa49e2303ef2e0017.5360&s=a9eec07a130d7809d93928ad264a482b

A new spring brings another anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. Twelve (sometimes tumultuous) years later, this remarkably resilient law is on firmer ground than ever before.

So what are some highlights?

The uninsured rate remained stable even in the face of a global pandemic. Congress leveraged parts of the ACA to quickly cover COVID-19 tests and vaccines without cost sharing.

The American Rescue Plan Act supercharged marketplace subsidies, leading to record-high marketplace enrollment.

And there are currently no existential legal threats to the law working their way through federal courts.

In some ways, this rosy report feels unremarkable. Why expect otherwise with the law now in place for more than a decade and baked into every part of the health care system?

But this outcome was far from inevitable.

Just five years ago, Congress tried to repeal as much of the law as possible. When those broader efforts failed, Congress eliminated the much-maligned individual mandate penalty. We appeared to have reached a stalemate: Democrats could not improve the law while Republicans could not repeal it.

Could this be the moment we moved on from ACA politics?!

Enter the courts. In early 2018, Republican attorneys general sued to invalidate the mandate and, with it, the rest of the law. That lawsuit—California v. Texas—was ultimately heard by a new Supreme Court one week after the 2020 election, and the ACA was upheld just last summer.

This marked the third time that the Supreme Court largely rebuffed what could have been a crippling legal challenge to the law. It feels like ancient history now, but it is worth remembering that we were still playing “will they or won’t they?” with the Supreme Court and ACA only one year ago.

In the meantime, the Trump administration tried to undermine access to coverage under the law—except when it didn’t. I won’t list all the relevant Trump-era policies, but they had an impact: the uninsured rate rose, and marketplace enrollment declined until the 2021 plan year.

Ironically, one policy meant to destabilize the market had the opposite effect: so-called “silver loading” led to more generous marketplace subsidies and likely helped stave off even greater coverage losses.

This is the recent history that is top of mind as I reflect on the year ahead—and the work left to do to achieve universal coverage. Here are just some of the major issues facing policymakers:

     • The clock is ticking to extend the American Rescue Plan Act subsidies. If Congress fails to do so, millions will face premium hikes next year and marketplace enrollment will likely drop.

     • More than 2 million low-income people remain stuck in the Medicaid coverage gap in the 12 states that have not yet expanded their Medicaid program.

     • Up to 15 million people, including nearly 6 million children, could lose Medicaid coverage at the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

     • There is increasingly an affordability and underinsurance crisis, including for those with job-based coverage: an estimated 87 million people were underinsured in 2018.

Congress and the White House are working to address these challenges, but much uncertainty remains.
“It feels like ancient history now, but it is worth remembering that we were still playing ‘will they or won’t they?’ with the Supreme Court and Affordable Care Act only one year ago.” – Katie Keith

Looking beyond Congress, 2022 will be an important year for regulatory changes. The Biden administration has proposed, but has not yet finalized, major marketplace changes. Other already-identified priorities include fixing the family glitch, limiting short-term limited duration insurance, and enhancing nondiscrimination protections. We could see movement on at least some of these rules soon.

While the Biden administration may be waiting out Congress before initiating some rulemaking, time is of the essence. New rules take many months to adopt and then take effect—followed by more time to deal with the legal challenges that typically follow.

Follow along as I dive deep on these issues and more in a new Health Affairs’ Health Reform newsletter.

We’ll highlight the latest health policy developments—from legislation to litigation—and explain what these changes mean for patients, payers, providers, and other key health care stakeholders.
It’s Your Birthday, Affordable Care Act!
In March 2020, Health Affairs published a theme issue to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. The issue contains many illuminating research articles on the landmark legislation, from its impact on “the cost curve” to Medicaid expansion.

Above is a datagraphic from the issue showing how the ACA affected insurance coverage.

Out-of-pocket limits aren’t silver bullets

Part of the reason why medical debt is so high is because many Americans don’t have enough savings to pay their deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs, according to a second KFF analysis.

Driving the news: Health insurance plans’ out-of-pocket limits prevent enrollees from paying limitless sums of money for medical care. But that doesn’t mean they protect people from having to pay several thousands of dollars — which not everyone has lying around.

  • Deductibles alone, which people must pay before coverage for most services kicks in, are frequently thousands of dollars and can exceed the amount of liquid assets a household has.

By the numbers: Over 40% of multi-person households can’t cover a mid-range employer family plan deductible of $4,000, and 61% don’t have enough to cover a high-range deductible.

  • The ability to pay out-of-pocket costs varies significantly by income.

America’s giant medical debt

Americans owe at least $195 billion of medical debt, despite 90% of the population having some kind of health coverage, according to new research from the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Why it matters: People are spending down their savings and skimping on food, clothing and household items to pay their medical bills, Adriel writes.

About 16 million people, or 6% of U.S. adults, owe more than $1,000 in medical bills, and 3 million people owe more than $10,000.

  • The financial burden falls disproportionately on people with disabilities, those in generally poor health, Black Americans and people living in the South or in non-Medicaid expansion states, per the research.

Go deeper: 16% of privately-insured adults say they would need to take on credit card debt to meet an unexpected $400 medical expense, while 7% would borrow money from friends or family, per the research, which focused on adults who reported having more than $250 in unpaid bills as of December 2019. 

It’s not yet clear how much the pandemic and the recession factor into the picture, in part because many people delayed or went without care. There also was a small shift from employer-based coverage to Medicaid, which has little or no cost-sharing.

  • While the new federal ban on surprise billing limits exposure to some unexpected expenses, it only covers a fraction of the large medical bills many Americans face, the researchers say.

Ambulance rides are getting a lot more expensive

https://www.axios.com/ambulance-rides-are-getting-a-lot-more-expensive-cee897fe-63b7-4412-aa67-718109773e79.html

The cost of an ambulance ride has soared over the past five years, according to a report from FAIR Health, shared first with Axios.

Why it matters: Patients typically have little ability to choose their ambulance provider, and often find themselves on the hook for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

The details: Most ambulance trips billed insurers for “advanced life support,” according to FAIR Health’s analysis.

  • Private insurers’ average payment for those rides jumped by 56% between 2017 and 2020 — from $486 to $758.
  • Ambulance operators’ sticker prices, before accounting for discounts negotiated with insurers, have risen 22% over the same period, and are now over $1,200.

Medicare, however, kept its payments in check: Its average reimbursement for advanced life support ambulance rides increased by just 5%, from $441 to $463.

Between the lines: Ambulances aren’t covered by the new law that bans most surprise medical bills, meaning patients are still on the hook in payment disputes between insurers and ambulance operators.

State of play: Ground ambulances are operated by local fire departments, private companies, hospitals and other providers and paid for in a variety of ways, which makes this a tricky issue to address, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

  • Some states — such as Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Vermont and West Virginia — have protections against surprise ground ambulance billing, a columnist in the Deseret News pointed out earlier this year.
  • But in California, Florida, Colorado, Texas, Illinois, Washington state and Wisconsin, more than two-thirds of emergency ambulance rides included an out-of-network charge for ambulance-related services that posed a surprise bill risk in 2018, according to a Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker brief.
  • The Biden administration has said it’s working on the problem.

The bottom line: Costs for ground ambulance care are on the rise and, with few balance billing protections, that means patients could still be hit with some big surprises if they wind up needing a ride in an ambulance.

Mark Cuban’s pharmacy started with a cold email

A Dallas-based generic drug startup bearing Mark Cuban's name just came out  of stealth

The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. launched its online pharmacy in January, offering low-cost versions of high-cost generic drugs. And it all started with a cold email. 

Alex Oshmyansky, MD, PhD, fired off an email to Mr. Cuban with a simple subject line: “Cold pitch.” The then 33-year-old radiologist told Mr. Cuban about work he was doing in Denver with a compounding pharmacy and the business plan behind a company he founded in 2018, Osh’s Affordable Pharmaceuticals. 

I asked him a simple question, because this was when the whole pharma bro thing was going down,” Mr. Cuban said on NPR podcast The Limits, referring to convicted felon Martin Shkreli. “I was like, ‘Look, if this guy can jack up the prices 750 percent for lifesaving medicines, can we go the opposite direction? Can we cut the pricing? Are there inefficiencies in this industry that really allow us to do it and really make a difference?'”

Dr. Oshmyansky answered yes. Their weekly email correspondence continued for months. The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. was quietly founded in May 2020, and Dr. Oshmyansky now serves as its CEO. The company is organized as a public-benefit corporation, meaning it is for-profit but claims its social mission of improving public health is just as important as the bottom line.

“We basically created a vertically integrated manufacturing company that will start with generic drugs,” Mr. Cuban told NPR. A major component of the strategy is to bypass pharmacy benefit managers, which Mr. Cuban likens to bouncers at a club.

They’re the ones who say, ‘Hey, I’m controlling access to all the big insurance companies. If you want this insurance company to sell your drug, you’ve got to pay the cover charge. All these drugs pay the cover charge to these PBMs through rebates, and because they’re paying the cover charges, the prices are jacked up,” Mr. Cuban told NPR. “We said we’re going to create our own PBM, we’re going to work directly with the manufacturers, and we’re not going to charge the cover charge.”

The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Co. marks the prices of its drugs up 15 percent, charges a $3 pharmacy fee to pay the pharmacists it works with, and a fee for shipping. “That’s it,” Mr. Cuban said on NPR. “There’s no other added costs. The manufacturers love what we’re doing for that reason.”

Others have set out before to disrupt pharma the way Mr. Cuban and Dr. Oshmyansky intend, but their downfall is cooperating or giving in to the PBMs, the entrepreneur noted

“People always ask, well why didn’t somebody do this before? The reality is there’s so much money there, it’s hard not to be greedy,” Mr. Cuban said on the podcast. “If you get to any scale at all, those PBMs will start throwing money at you and saying, ‘Look, just play the game.’” 

Mr. Cuban has indicated he has no intention to play the game. 

“I could make a fortune from this,” Mr. Cuban told Texas Monthly last fall. “But I won’t. I’ve got enough money. I’d rather f— up the drug industry in every way possible.”