Hospital Uncompensated Care Costs Grew to $41.61B in 2019

Uncompensated Care Costs Fell in Nearly Every State as ACA's Major Coverage  Provisions Took Effect | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Hospital uncompensated care costs were up from $41.3B in 2018 and $38.4B in 2017, revealing an upward trend, according to AHA data.

Hospital uncompensated care costs increased right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, according to new data from the American Hospital Association (AHA).

AHA data showed that hospitals incurred a new high of $41.61 billing in uncompensated care costs in 2019, the most recent year for which the group had complete data.

Uncompensated care costs in 2019 were up from $41.3 billion in 2018 and $38.4 billion in 2017 and were the second-highest per AHA records. Hospitals reported the most uncompensated care costs in 2013 when they incurred $46.8 billion.

Hospital uncompensated care costs decreased after the all-time high in 2013, but have recently started to tick back up after holding steady at $38.4 in 2016 and 2017.

In just the last 20 years, hospitals of all types have provided more than $660 billion in uncompensated care to patients, AHA reported. And that figure does not fully account for other ways in which provides provide financial assistance to patients of limited means, the group stated.

Each year, AHA aggregates data on uncompensated care, or care provided for which no reimbursement is received by hospitals from patients or payers. The data comes from the group’s Annual Survey of Hospitals, a comprehensive report of hospital financial data.

Uncompensated care is the sum of a hospital’s bad debt and financial assistance it provides, AHA explained.

Bad debt occurs when a hospital does not expect to obtain reimbursement for care provided, such as when patients are unable to pay their financial responsibility and do not qualify for financial assistance or are unwilling to pay their bills.

Hospitals also provide varying levels of financial assistance, AHA added. Financial assistance supports patients who cannot afford to pay and qualify for support from the hospital based on policies it has established based on the facility’s mission, financial condition, and geographic location, among other factors.

Combined, bad debt and financial assistance charges total a hospital’s uncompensated care charges, which is then multiplied by a hospital’s cost-to-charge ratio to determine total uncompensated care costs.

AHA noted that it expressed uncompensated care in costs versus charges because of significant variations in hospital payer mixes. Publishing the information as costs rather than charges enables better comparison across hospitals, the group said.

Nearly half of hospitals (48 percent) have seen bad debt and uncompensated care increase recently as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an analysis from consulting firm Kaufman Hall revealed.

More than 40 percent of hospitals also reported increases in percentage of uninsured or self-pay patients (44 percent) and the percentage of Medicaid patients (41 percent), which both contribute to unfunded or underfunded care at hospitals.

“The challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have affected nearly every aspect of hospital financial and clinical operations,” Lance Robinson, a managing director at Kaufman Hall, said at the time. “Organizations have responded to the challenge by adjusting their operations and strengthening important community relationships.”

Hospital uncompensated care costs – and bad debt as a result – are likely to increase in 2020 as hospitals come to terms with the impact COVID-19 has had on their financial health.

Already, hospitals have lost an estimated $323 billion in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to earlier projections from AHA.

About half of US hospitals also started the year in the red, AHA and Kaufman Hall stated in a recent report. The organizations predicted that hospital margins would sink to -7 percent in the second half of 2020 without comprehensive financial support from the government, but could decrease to a low of -11 percent if COVID-19 continued to periodically surge as it has.

Lawsuit Challenges GA’s 1332 Waiver, ACA in the Biden Pandemic Plan

Lawsuit Challenges GA's 1332 Waiver, ACA in the Biden Pandemic Plan |  Health Affairs

On January 14, 2021, Planned Parenthood Southeast and the Feminist Women’s Health Center filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s approval of Georgia’s waiver under Section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in DC. This post summarizes that legal challenge as well as parts of President Biden’s recent proposed pandemic relief package that relate to the ACA and coverage. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan includes several coverage-related proposals and would follow the pandemic relief passed by Congress in December 2020.

Advocates Challenge The Approval of Georgia’s 1332 Waiver

Regular readers know that the Trump administration—through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Treasury Department—approved a broad waiver request from Georgia under Section 1332 of the ACA. The approved waiver authorizes the state to establish a reinsurance program for plan year 2022 and eliminate the use of HealthCare.gov beginning with plan year 2023. CMS and Treasury approved the waiver application on November 1, 2020. The history of Georgia’s waiver application and approval is summarized in prior posts as well as in the complaint filed in the lawsuit.

The reinsurance portion of the waiver is straightforward; of the 16 states with an approved Section 1332 waiver, all but one state has established a state-based reinsurance program. But the second part of the waiver application, known as the Georgia Access Model, is far more controversial. This is the broadest waiver yet to be approved under Section 1332 and relies on interpretations of Section 1332 made in much-criticized Trump-era guidance from 2018.

Critics have long argued that Georgia’s proposal fails to satisfy Section 1332’s procedural and substantive guardrails, meaning it could not be lawfully approved by the Trump administration. Given this controversy, legal challenges to the waiver approval were expected.

The Lawsuit

Planned Parenthood Southeast and the Feminist Women’s Health Center—represented by Democracy Forward—filed a lawsuit in federal district court in DC on January 14, 2021. The lawsuit alleges that the Trump administration’s 2018 guidance and approval of Georgia’s waiver are unlawful because these actions violate Section 1332 of the ACA and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The lawsuit also cites many of the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to undermine the ACA as evidence that the 2018 guidance and waiver approval are part of a pattern of ACA sabotage.

In particular, the plaintiffs argue that the 2018 guidance and waiver approval are contrary to Section 1332, exceed the scope of the agencies’ authority (by allowing states to waive non-waivable provisions of the ACA), and are arbitrary and capricious. They also argue that the waiver approval failed to satisfy procedural requirements under the ACA and APA because Georgia and the Trump administration rushed through the process without adequate time for public comment and without adequate clarification of how the state intends to approach key issues.” Here, the lawsuit points to the fact that Georgia went through four iterations of its waiver application, that its application was incomplete, and that only eight comments (less than one half of one percent) of the 1,826 total comments submitted during the most recent federal public comment period were in support of the Georgia Access Model.

As such, the plaintiffs ask the court to vacate both the approved waiver and the 2018 guidance and declare that they are unlawful. They also ask that the federal government be enjoined from taking further action on Georgia’s waiver or considering other waivers under the 2018 guidance. The plaintiffs acknowledge that the reinsurance portion of the waiver is uncontroversial and that the focus of the lawsuit is on the Georgia Access Model; however, the plaintiffs challenge approval of the waiver as a whole and ask the court to set aside the waiver in whole or in part. The plaintiffs have not sued Georgia, although it is possible that Georgia may ask to intervene in the litigation to defend its interests.

Much of the lawsuit turns on how the Trump administration interpreted the statutory guardrails under Section 1332 and long-standing concerns about direct enrollment and enhanced direct enrollment. Federal officials can grant a Section 1332 waiver only if a state demonstrates that their proposal meets certain statutory “guardrails.” These guardrails ensure that a waiver proposal will 1) provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as ACA coverage ( “comprehensiveness” guardrail); 2) provide coverage and cost-sharing protections that are at least as affordable as ACA requirements (“affordability” guardrail); 3) provide coverage to at least a comparable number of residents as under the ACA ( “coverage” guardrail); and 4) not increase the federal deficit. The Obama administration issued guidance in 2015 on its interpretation of these guardrails.

In 2018, the Trump administration replaced that guidance and adopted its own interpretation, which many argued was inconsistent with Section 1332. The 2018 guidance tried to pave the way for the Trump administration to approve waivers where only some coverage under the waiver (instead of all coverage) satisfied the comprehensiveness and affordability guardrails. Under this view, waivers could be approved even if only some coverage under the waiver was as comprehensive, as affordable, and as available as coverage provided under the ACA. The 2018 guidance would also allow waivers to expand access to plans that do not have to meet the ACA’s requirements. (Separately, the Trump administration issued a final rule to codify the 2018 guidance’s interpretations into regulations.)

The lawsuit argues that the Georgia Access Model violates all four statutory guardrails because it will “drastically underperform the ACA.” The waiver proposal could lead to net enrollment losses in Georgia, which violates the coverage guardrail. The waiver could lead some consumers to enroll in non-ACA plans (such as short-term plans) with benefit gaps, which violates the comprehensiveness guardrail. And consumers will have to pay higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs through higher broker commissions, reduced competition, and adverse selection against the ACA markets, which violates the affordability guardrail and potentially the deficit neutrality guardrail (since higher ACA premiums mean higher federal outlays in the form of premium tax credits).

As health care providers in Georgia, Planned Parenthood Southeast and the Feminist Women’s Health Center allege they will be harmed for several reasons. They argue that the Georgia Access Model will make it more difficult and expensive for their patients to obtain health insurance. Fewer patients with health insurance will result in higher levels of uncompensated care. More uncompensated care will strain the plaintiffs’ resources and limit other services, such as community outreach. The loss of coverage resulting from the waiver will leave their patients in worse health and develop more complex treatment needs, making it more expensive for plaintiffs to treat those patients as a result. And approval of the waiver will make it more complicated for the plaintiffs to assist their patients with enrollment.

What Happens Next

The lawsuit was assigned to Judge James E. Boasberg of the federal district court for DC. Health policy watchers know Judge Boasberg as the judge who repeatedly invalidated the Trump administration’s approval of state Section 1115 waivers with work and community engagement requirements. He is thus no stranger to assessing the legality of waiver approvals under the APA and other federal statutes.

The lawsuit will proceed, and the Biden administration will be responsible for filing a response in court. One potential option could be for the Biden administration to ask the court for a stay while it revisits the approved waiver and perhaps holds another round of public comment on the most recent version of the waiver (which, as the lawsuit points out, was never submitted for public comment). The Biden administration could consider any new comments in reevaluating approval of the Georgia Access Model.

If the federal government newly concludes that the proposal fails to satisfy the substantive guardrails, it could have grounds to amend, suspend, or terminate Georgia’s waiver, so long as certain procedures are followed. This is because the terms and conditions of the waiver agreement between the federal government and Georgia (as well as implementing regulations) always give the federal government “the right to suspend or terminate a waiver, in whole or in part, any time before the date of expiration, if the Secretaries determine that the state materially failed to comply with the terms” of the waiver.

Georgia’s waiver agreement includes some unique terms and conditions relative to waivers in other states. Those terms seem designed to limit the federal government’s ability to suspend or terminate Georgia’s waiver. But the federal government can do so as long as it complies with relevant procedures. This includes notifying Georgia of its determination, providing an effective date, and citing reasons for the amendment or termination (i.e., why the Georgia Access Model fails to satisfy Section 1332’s substantive guardrails). Georgia would have 90 days to respond, with the possibility of providing a corrective action plan to come into compliance with the waiver conditions. Georgia must also be given an opportunity to be heard and challenge the suspension or termination.

Alternatively, the Biden administration could regularly assess and monitor the state’s compliance with the terms and conditions and its progress, or lack thereof, in implementing the Georgia Access Model. Federal officials do this with all waivers. Under the waiver approval, Georgia must, for instance, satisfy requirements related to funding, reporting and evaluation, development of an outreach and communications plan, and operational standards for eligibility determinations. If Georgia fails to comply with these terms and conditions, that too would be grounds to initiate the process to amend or terminate parts or all of Georgia’s waiver.

Coverage Provisions In Biden’s American Rescue Plan

On January 14, a few days before taking office, President Biden issued a 19-page fact sheet outlining his proposed American Rescue Plan to contain the COVID-19 virus and stabilize the economy. The announcement praised the bipartisan package adopted in December 2020 as “a step in the right direction” but notes that Congress did not go far enough to fully address the pandemic and economic fallout. Following Inauguration Day, Biden is expected to lay out an additional economic recovery plan. 

Among many other initiatives, the comprehensive $1.9 trillion plan would provide funding for a national vaccination program, create a new public health jobs program, provide funding for schools to reopen safely, extend and expand emergency paid leave, extend and expand unemployment benefits, raise the minimum wage, and deliver $1,400 in support for people across the country. The Biden plan also calls for preserving and expanding health insurance, noting that 30 million people were uninsured even before the pandemic and that millions may have lost job-based coverage in 2020.

First, the American Rescue Plan calls for Congress to provide COBRA subsidies through the end of September. Presumably, these subsidies would be available from the beginning of 2021, rather than subsidizing premiums from 2020. COBRA subsidies during an economic emergency are not new. Congress subsidized COBRA premiums during the 2008 recession, with mixed results. Full COBRA subsidies were included in the original Heroes Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2020, although not in the revised Heroes Act that was passed by the House in October 2020. But neither bill was ever taken up by the U.S. Senate. It is not clear from the fact sheet whether the Biden administration is aiming for full COBRA subsidies where the government would pay 100 percent of the premiums for COBRA coverage for laid-off workers and furloughed employees—or some other amount (e.g., 80 percent of premiums).

Second, the American Rescue Plan would accomplish one of candidate Biden’s key campaign promises by expanding and increasing the value of premium tax credits under the ACA. Democrats in Congress have repeatedly passed legislation that would accomplish what the American Rescue Plan fact sheet seems to call for. For instance, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Enhancement Act—passed by the House in July 2020—would have expanded the availability of premium tax credits to those whose income is above 400 percent of the federal poverty level and made those credits more generous by reducing the level of income that an individual must contribute towards their health insurance premiums to 8.5 percent for those with the highest incomes. This subsidy expansion and enhancement would improve the affordability of coverage for millions of Americans who purchase coverage in the individual market.

Beyond COBRA and ACA subsidies, the American Rescue Plan calls for additional funding for veterans’ health care needs and for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Health Resources and Services Administration to expand access to behavioral health services. The proposal would also increase the federal Medicaid assistance percentage (FMAP) to 100 percent for the administration of COVID-19 vaccines to help ensure that all Medicaid enrollees will be vaccinated. The proposal does not appear to otherwise mention Medicaid, which is serving as a key safety net as incomes have dropped for millions of Americans, despite bipartisan support for an enhanced FMAP during the pandemic.

ACA plan enrollment for 2021 ticked up slightly

Healthcare.gov (ACA) 2021 Enrollment Information | Congressman Steve Cohen

Dive Brief:

  • Consumers choosing insurance via the federal Affordable Care Act exchanges reached 8.25 million over the 2021 open enrollment period, about the same number as the year before, CMS said Wednesday.
  • Because two fewer states are participating in the federal marketplace this year, adjusted year-over-year growth in plan selections was 7%, the agency said.
  • Of the total, 23% of consumers were new, down by 3.6%Renewing consumers who actively chose a new plan and those who were automatically re-enrolled both increased.

Dive Insight:

The figures are the last from the Trump administration, which has drastically reduced money toward navigators who help people use the Healthcare.gov website and find the best ACA plan for them. The administration has made no secret of its opposition to the law and after failing to overturn it in Congress has used executive actions to undermine it.

Still looming is the Trump administration’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the landmark law.

President-Elect Joe Biden and his pick for HHS chief, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, however, are eager supporters and are likely to take a number of actions to restore and burnish it. That could be increasing tax credits and subsidies, increasing navigator funding and building on protections like essential health benefits.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to make its ruling on the ACA case later this spring or summer, but the Biden administration could essentially make it moot by walking back the zeroing out of the individual mandate penalty that is the linchpin of the lawsuit against it.

The relatively steady enrollment could be increased through those actions and the possibility of a special enrollment period to account for needs during the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis and the recession it has caused have kicked millions of people off their employer-sponsored insurance, and they could turn to the exchanges for coverage, especially with higher tax credits and subsidies.

New unemployment claims jump to nearly 1 million, the highest level since August

Unemployment rate remains at 6.7%, employers cut 140,000 jobs last month -  ABC News

The number of new unemployment claims filed last week jumped by 181,000 the week before to 965,000, the largest increase since the beginning of the pandemic.

It was the largest number of new unemployment claims since August.

An additional 284,000 claims were filed for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the insurance for gig and self-employed workers.

The weekly report is President Trump’s last before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20. Biden will inherit a labor market badly weakened by the coronavirus pandemic and an economic recovery that appears to have stalled: 140,000 people lost their jobs in December, the first decline in months, with the U.S. still down millions of jobs since February.

The dire numbers will serve as a backdrop for Biden as he formally unveils an ambitious stimulus package proposal on Thursday, which could top $1 trillion, and is expected include an expansion of the child tax credit, a $2,000 stimulus payment, and other assistance for the economy.

Democrats were already using the weak labor to argue about the necessity of more aid.

Economists say that the economy’s struggles could be explained, in part, by the delay Congress allowed between the summer, when many fiscal aid programs expired and December, when lawmakers finally agreed on a new package after months of stalemate.

The number of new jobless claims has come down since the earliest days of the pandemic, but remains at a extremely high level week in and week out.

The total number of continuing people in any of the unemployment programs at the end of the year was 18.4 million, although officials have cautioned that the number is inflated by accounting issues and duplicate claims.

The increase in claims is not entirely unexpected. As the aid package passed by Congress in December kicks in, including a $300 a week unemployment supplement, some economists expected that to result in more workers filing claims.

Economy loses 140K jobs in December, first losses since April

https://thehill.com/policy/finance/533242-december-jobs-report

57% of Unemployed Americans Blame COVID-19 for Job Loss - New Jersey  Business Magazine

The economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, the first reported losses since April, as the unemployment rate remained steady at 6.7 percent.

Economists expected a small jobs gain of nearly 50,000. The drop is the latest sign of a weakening economy amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. All in all, the economy remains about 10 million jobs below its pre-pandemic levels.

“There’s not much comfort to be taken from the stable unemployment rate, given that millions of Americans have left the labor force with nearly 11 million listed as officially out of work,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com.

“Between the human and economic tolls taken by the pandemic, these are some of the darkest hours of this soon-to-be yearlong tragedy.”

The biggest losses were concentrated in leisure and hospitality, a sector particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, which lost an astonishing 498,000 jobs.

State and local government payrolls shed 51,000 jobs. Congress deferred passing state and local aid in its latest COVID-19 relief bill.

But the overall loss would have been worse had it not been for gains in professional and business services, which added 161,000 jobs; retail trade, which added 120,500 jobs; and construction, which added 51,000.

Some demographic groups have been hit harder by the economic downturn.

The unemployment rate for Hispanics rose to 9.3 percent in December, while Black unemployment remained elevated at 9.9 percent. The rate for whites was 6 percent, and for Asians it was 5.9 percent.

Over a third of jobless people have been unemployed for over 27 weeks.

Jobless claims remain high

An estimated 803,000 people applied for unemployment aid for the first time last week, the Labor Department said Wednesday, showing the economy’s persistent weakness as new drama swirls over Washington’s response to the crisis. The figure was a slight decrease from the previous week but still much higher than normal.

The new Labor Department data show how weak the economy is, particularly the labor market. The surge in new coronavirus cases and deaths in the past few months has cooled the partial economic recovery from the summer.

Retail sales have weakened, and hiring has slowed markedly. The travel and tourism industries have not recovered much of the business lost since March, and thousands of companies — particularly restaurants and bars — have closed. U.S. household spending slipped in November, marking the first drop since April.

After months of stop-and-start negotiations, the bipartisan stimulus package finally offered some hope for households and businesses fighting to make it through the winter.

If Trump does not sign the bill, up to 14 million Americans would lose unemployment aid after Christmas. An eviction moratorium will expire at the end of the year, and $25 billion in emergency rental assistance will not get out the door. Billions of dollars for nutrition assistance, aid for small businesses, child care, transportation services and more will be in jeopardy, and the government will shut down on Dec. 29.

Trump did not play much of a role in the economic relief talks that resulted in Congress passing the $900 billion stimulus package. In the video Trump posted Tuesday night, his main complaint was that he wanted the $600 stimulus checks in the package to be increased to $2,000. This would add $370 billion to the measure.

Democrats quickly rallied around Trump’s demand, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plans to try to hold a vote on it as soon as Thursday. But it could be virtually impossible to pass such a measure through Congress with unanimous support, leaving the entire bill’s future uncertain.

The stimulus package would extend unemployment benefits of up to $300 per week, beginning as soon as Dec. 27 and run at least through mid-March. The measure also would extend Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — which targets part-time and gig workers who did not qualify for state unemployment insurance benefits — for 11 weeks.

Wednesday’s data showed nearly 400,000 new claims for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Cartoon – The Current Line

Northern CA News, Sports & Politics | The Sacramento Bee

Unemployment claims rose sharply last week as economic crisis grinds on

U.S. Unemployment Claims Rise Amid Coronavirus Surge - WSJ

Applications for jobless benefits resumed their upward march last week as the worsening pandemic continued to take a toll on the economy.

More than 947,000 workers filed new claims for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was up nearly 229,000 from the week before, reversing a one-week dip that many economists attributed to the Thanksgiving holiday. Applications have now risen three times in the last four weeks, and are up nearly a quarter-million since the first week of November.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the week’s figure was 853,000, an increase of 137,000.

Nearly 428,000 applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t qualify for regular state benefits.

Unemployment filings have fallen greatly since last spring, when as many as six million people a week applied for state benefits. But progress had stalled even before the recent increases, and with Covid-19 cases soaring and states reimposing restrictions on consumers and businesses, economists fear that layoffs could surge again.

“It’s very clear the third wave of the pandemic is causing businesses to have to lay people off and consumers to cut back spending,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist for the career site Glassdoor. “It seems like we’re in for a rough winter economically.”

Jobless claims rose in nearly every state last week. In California, where the state has imposed strict new limits on many businesses, applications jumped by 47,000, more than reversing the state’s Thanksgiving-week decline.

The monthly jobs report released on Friday showed that hiring slowed sharply in early November and that some of the sectors most exposed to the pandemic, like restaurants and retailers, cut jobs for the first time since the spring. More up-to-date data from private sources suggests that the slowdown has continued or deepened since the November survey was conducted.

Every month, we’re just seeing the pace of the recovery get slower and slower,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist with the job site Indeed. Now, she said, the question is, “Are we actually going to see it slide backward?”

Many economists say the recovery will continue to slow if the government does not provide more aid to households and businesses. After months of gridlock in Washington, prospects for a new round of federal help have grown in recent days, with congressional leaders from both parties signaling their openness to a compromise and the White House proposing its own $916 billion spending plan on Tuesday. But the two sides remain far apart on key issues.

The stakes are particularly high for jobless workers depending on federal programs that have expanded and extended unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Those programs expire later this month, potentially leaving millions of families with no income during what epidemiologists warn could be some of the pandemic’s worst months.