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.

Providers will no longer be reimbursed for caring for uninsured COVID patients, as funding runs out

Starting next month, the federal government will stop reimbursing hospitals and other providers for the vaccination, testing, and treatment of uninsured COVID-19 patients. So far, about 50K providers have submitted a total of $20B of claims for COVID-related care for the uninsured.

Congress has yet to authorize more funding for this and other COVID relief programs, after stripping $15.6B from the latest government spending package. Though the White House is asking Congress to authorize $22.5B for further COVID aid and surge preparedness, it’s not clear how much of any new funding would go toward reimbursing care for the uninsured.

The Gist: This news comes as US officials expect a rise in cases driven by the Omicron BA.2 subvariant. Hospitals, already struggling with high labor and supply expenses, will face further margin pressures if a future COVID surge brings increased hospitalizations. 

This will be especially true for safety net hospitals, and for those in states which haven’t expanded Medicaid. At the same time, 15M Americans are also at risk of losing Medicaid coverage when the federal government ends the public health emergency. Lower-income patients and the hospitals that treat them have already shouldered COVID’s worst effects, and the funding stalemate risks further worsening their situation.

Health Agency Preparing for Lapse in Extra ACA Subsidies

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  • 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

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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.

Understanding the mechanics of the 340B drug pricing program

https://mailchi.mp/96b1755ea466/the-weekly-gist-november-19-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

The 340B Drug Pricing Program, designed to increase access to specialty pharmaceuticals for low-income patients, is a perennial area of concern for health policy. The program has grown exponentially since its inception almost 30 years ago: 340B providers increased purchases of discounted drugs from $4B in 2009 to $38B in 2020, five times faster than the overall growth rate of US drug sales. Insurers and drug manufacturers are advocating for significant changes to the program, or even favor eliminating it entirely, claiming that 340B has grown beyond its original intent to help safety net facilities, and simply enriches providers without directly benefiting patients. Indeed, the profits from 340B have become essential for many hospitals’ sustainability; some systems tell us that 340B accounts for their entire margin.
 
In the graphic above, we outline the basics of revenue and product flow within this complex program. The 340B program is meant to allow hospitals that treat low-income, underserved patients to purchase drugs from manufacturers at a 25 to 50-plus percent discount, but still be reimbursed by payers at standard network rates. The discounts are intended to help hospitals overcome losses they incur in providing uncompensated care, but apply to drugs for all patients, regardless of income and insurance status. 340B providers often partner with independent pharmacies to dispense the drugs, and payers are billed the full list price for the medication. Thus, insured patients pay co-payments on the full price of drugs, leading to criticism that 340B savings are not passed on to patients. 340B providers share an estimated $40B in total annual profit with partner contract pharmacies.

The program has been targeted for overhaul by both the Trump and Biden administrations, and faces another threat later this month, when the US Supreme Court is set to hear a case between the hospital industry and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to decide whether the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has the authority to enact payment cuts through rulemaking. 

If the court rules in favor of the agency, 340B providers could see significant cuts in payment rates. In our next edition, we’ll dive deeper into the potential impact of that ruling on the industry.

Americans’ medical debt tops $140B, study finds

What Are The Best Ways to Clear Medical Debt?

Collection agencies held $140 billion in unpaid medical debt in 2020, according to a study published July 20 in JAMA.

Researchers examined a nationally representative panel of consumer credit reports between January 2009 and June 2020. Below are four other notable findings from their report.

  1. An estimated 17.8 percent of Americans owed medical debt in June 2020. The average amount owed was $429.
  2. Over the time period studied, the amount of medical debt became progressively more concentrated in states that don’t participate in the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion program.
  3. Between 2013 and 2020, states that expanded Medicaid in 2014 experienced a decline in the average flow of medical debt that was 34 percentage points greater than the average medical debt flow in states that didn’t expand Medicaid.
  4. In the states that expanded Medicaid, the gap in the average medical debt flow between the lowest and highest ZIP code income levels decreased by $145, while the gap increased by $218 in states that did not expand Medicaid.

Relying on one nonprofit to relieve the debts owed to another

https://mailchi.mp/bade80e9bbb7/the-weekly-gist-june-18-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

American Hospital Association stays mum on debt collection practices |  BenefitsPRO
Ballad Health, a not-for-profit health system operating in Virginia and Tennessee, announced this week that it had reached an agreement with RIP Medical Debt, a charity that uses donations to relieve debt created by healthcare bills, to pay off $287M of outstanding debt owed by its patients.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the purchase will eliminate the debt of 82,000 low-income patients, many of whom qualified for Ballad’s charity care program but did not take advantage of it. The terms of the purchase were not disclosed, but RIP Medical Debt, which says it has relieved over $4.5B in medical debt nationally, typically pays between one and 1.25 percent of the owed amount for recent debt, and as little as 0.03 percent for older debt. That’s similar to what typical debt-purchasing businesses pay. But unlike those businesses, however, RIP Medical Debt says its debt eradication service has no tax consequences for recipients, effectively wiping away large sums that patients might have owed for years.

Since its creation as the result of a 2018 merger, Ballad has faced a mandate to increase the financial aid it provides to low-income patients, but has still come under criticism for aggressive collection practices, including the use of lawsuits against patients who owe the system. The deal with RIP Medical Debt is intended to reduce the amount of debt outstanding—as Ballad CEO Alan Levine told the Journal, “We’re wiping the slate clean.”

As a recent analysis by Axios and Johns Hopkins University showed, most nonprofit hospital systems have tried to reduce aggressive collections in recent years, with just 10 hospitals accounting for 97 percent of court actions against patients between 2018 and 2020. While it’s shocking to hear of a private charity having to step in to relieve patients of crippling medical debt in our nation’s $3.6T healthcare industry, absent larger structural solutions to the broken reimbursement system, it’s at least heartening to know that such services are available. But it’s a Band-Aid solution—more radical treatment remains undelivered.

1 in 3 Americans skip care due to cost concerns, survey shows

Americans most likely to skip health care due to cost: survey

In the past year, cost was a bigger factor driving Americans to skip recommended healthcare than fear of contracting COVID-19, according to a report released June 1 by Patientco, a revenue cycle management company focusing on patient payment technology.

Patientco surveyed 3,116 patients and 46 healthcare providers, finding 34 percent of female patients and 30 percent of male patients have avoided care in the past year citing concerns about out-of-pocket costs.

Below are three more notable findings from the report:

  1. Healthcare affordability is not an issue that affects only Americans with low incomes, as 85 percent of patients with household incomes greater than $175,000 are less likely to defer care when flexible payment options are offered.
  2. Across all ages, income levels and education levels, most patients said they struggled to understand their medical bills and what they owed. Nearly two-thirds of patients said they did not understand their explanation of benefits, did not know what they should do with the information in their explanation of benefits, or waited too long to obtain their explanation of benefits.
  3. Forty-five percent of patients said they would need financial assistance for medical bills that exceed $500, and 66 percent of patients said the same for medical bills that exceed $1,000.