Consumer-directed health plans enrollment up but costs are not coming down, RAND finds

http://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/consumer-directed-health-plans-enrollment-costs-are-not-coming-down-rand-finds?mkt_id=1526895&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWm1NeVpXWmtNall4WTJWbCIsInQiOiJDV1RRSkR0bFhQOGpsaDlib0hldGUrdEVoK0ttS2Q1VXBQQldYaFhFeXRaYW4xRE9ZXC9rU1gxd0QwdlFtbCtPYWR5d3QwK0hHTlEwb0NKSnkrd2pcL0J1NCtOTklqc2hyZ1ArWDZRY2E5RjBoXC80NG8xaVhzT1kyV3Z1N0tIUnRCeCJ9

 

Even though high-deductible insurance options could save patients thousands of dollars every year, most people are not shopping around.

An increasingly popular form of health insurance touted for its money-saving potential has not reduced spending on unnecessary medical services, a new study shows.

Researchers from the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics and the RAND Corp. found that consumer-directed, high-deductible health plans have little or no effect on curbing spending on 26 services that medical professional and industry groups have deemed “low value.”

The researchers compared patient spending on unnecessary medical services, such as an MRI for lower back pain or imaging for an uncomplicated headache, before and after they switched from a traditional insurance plan to a consumer-directed health plan — a form of high-deductible insurance.

The study, published in The American Journal of Managed Care, is the latest of several to indicate that high-deductible plans are falling short of their promises of significant savings.
Recent work by researchers at USC Schaeffer Center, the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC School of Pharmacy have found that most consumers on high-deductible plans are not comparing prices to find the best deals on services or on prescription drugs, even though the research indicates that some patients could potentially save hundreds or thousands of dollars per year.

Unnecessary services add up to an estimated $750 billion in wasteful healthcare spending each year, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Examples of the unnecessary services in the list of 26 that the researchers tracked were T3 testing for hypothyroidism, a spinal injection for low-back pain and stress testing for stable coronary artery disease.

Patients on consumer-directed health plans share more costs for their care than patients on traditional plans as they pay a higher deductible. With the high-deductible plan, a patient can open a pre-taxed healthcare savings account and use it to pay for out-of-pocket medical services. This type of plan is often pitched as way to give consumers more skin in the game, presuming they will shop and compare prices for services or skip unnecessary care and therefore spend less.

Enrollment in these plans has risen dramatically in the last decade, with a nearly seven-fold increase. Only about 4 percent of Americans with employer-sponsored insurance were on a consumer-directed health plan in 2005, compared to about 30 percent today. The vast majority of individuals who obtained insurance under the Affordable Care Act are on consumer-directed health plans.

Patients are reducing their spending overall, but not for low-value services in particular — and medical providers also often lack incentives to curb spending on these services, which are frequently ineffective.

The study focused on 26 common, low-value services from various sources, including the Choosing Wisely campaign, national guidelines, peer-reviewed literature and professional consensus. Launched in 2012 by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation to raise awareness about unnecessary services, the Choosing Wisely campaign has compiled recommendations from more than 70 medical professional and specialty societies identifying common and wasteful medical tests, treatments and procedures whose use should be questioned or avoided.

While spending on unnecessary services did not significantly change after a patient switched plans, the high-deductible plan did result in an average, annual $231 decrease on outpatient spending.

Out-of-pocket health spending in 2016 increased at the fastest rate in a decade

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/06/out-of-pocket-health-spending-in-2016-increased-at-the-fastest-rate-in-a-decade/?utm_term=.42b85bdeba98

U.S. health care spending increased to $3.3 trillion in 2016, with out-of-pocket health care costs borne directly by consumers rising 3.9 percent — the fastest rate of growth since 2007.

The findings, published Wednesday by Health Affairs, are considered the authoritative breakdown of American health care spending and are prepared each year by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The overall rate of increase in health care spending experienced a slight slowdown over the previous year, driven in part by the expected moderation in growth after the expansion of insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act. There was also a sharp decrease in the growth of prescription drug expenditures, as hepatitis C treatment costs have declined and fewer patients are receiving them.

The slowdown in spending growth — a 4.3 percent increase in 2016, following a 5.8 percent growth the previous year — stemmed from changes in a broad array of health care sectors.

That ranged from slower growth in Medicaid spending after the surge in enrollment caused by the Affordable Care Act expansion, to a marked slowdown in prescription drug spending growth that had been pushed higher by the approval of a new, expensive treatment for hepatitis C in 2013.

A shift toward insurance plans that transfer more of the burden of health care costs onto patients helped fuel the rise in out-of-pocket costs. In 2016, 29 percent of people who receive insurance through employers were enrolled in high-deductible plans, up from 20 percent in 2014. The size of the deductibles also increased over this time period, a 12 percent increase in 2016 for individual plans, compared with a 7 percent increase in 2014.

Out-of-pocket spending grew the most on medical equipment and supplies and decreased slightly for prescription drugs, according to the analysis.

The most noticeable change was a big slowdown in prescription drug spending growth, which made up 10 percent of the total spending, or $328.6 billion. (That spending number does not include drugs administered by physicians or hospitals.)

That decrease highlights the effect that expensive new treatments used by large numbers of people can have on national spending. A new generation of expensive hepatitis C drugs drove national drug spending 12.4 percent higher in 2014 and 8.9 percent higher in 2015. In 2016, the prescription drug spending increased by 1.3 percent, closer to the rates in the years before the new drugs were approved.

The authors of the report attributed that trend not just to hepatitis C drugs. There were also fewer new, brand name drugs approved in 2016 — 22 new drugs, compared with 45 the previous year. Another factor was a slowdown in the growth of spending on insulin, a lifesaving drug for people with diabetes, in Medicare.

Insulin prices have been under intense scrutiny as drugmakers have increased the list prices of insulin while claiming the true cost to patients has remained flat due to discounts and rebates

Health care spending has been buffeted by unusual changes during the past decade. There was a historic slowdown in growth due to the Great Recession, and then the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of health insurance coverage fueled spending.

The authors said this year’s trend of slower growth could be a sign that things were returning to normal.

“Future health expenditure trends are expected to be mostly influenced by changes in economic conditions and demographics, as has historically been the case,” the authors wrote.

 

Healthcare lobbyists not optimistic on changing GOP tax bill

http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20171206/NEWS/171209899

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Healthcare lobbyists are scrambling to win changes in congressional Republican tax legislation, as Senate and House GOP leaders race to merge their separate bills into something both chambers can pass on a party-line vote this month.

But provider, insurer and patient advocacy groups doubt they can convince Republicans to remove or soften the provisions they find most objectionable. They say GOP leaders are moving too fast and providing too little opportunity for healthcare stakeholders to provide input.

“It’s a madhouse,” said Julius Hobson, a veteran healthcare lobbyist with the Polsinelli law firm. “What you worry about is this will get done behind closed doors, even before they start the conference committee process.”

One factor that could slow the rush to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is the need to pass a continuing resolution this week to fund the federal government and prevent a shutdown. Unlike with the tax bill, Republicans need Democratic support for that, and it’s not clear they’ll make the concessions Democrats are demanding.

Industry lobbyists are particularly targeting provisions in the House and Senate tax bills limiting tax-exempt financing for not-for-profit hospitals and other organizations; repealing the Affordable Care Act’s tax penalty for not buying health insurance; ending corporate tax credits for the cost of clinical trials of orphan drugs; and taxing not-for-profit executive compensation exceeding $1 million.

If the ACA’s insurance mandate is repealed, “our plans will have to evaluate whether they can stay in the individual market or not based on what it does to enrollment and the risk profile of people who choose to stay,” said Margaret Murray, CEO of the Association for Community Affiliated Plans, which represents safety net insurers.

AARP and other consumer lobbying groups are fighting to save the household deduction for high healthcare costs, which the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would abolish.

Healthcare lobbyists also are warning lawmakers that capping or ending the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes will force many states to cut Medicaid. Beyond that, they say slashing taxes and increasing the federal deficit will trigger immediate Medicare budget sequestration cuts that would hurt providers and patients, particularly in rural and low-income areas.

“One in three rural hospitals are at financial risk of closure, and sequestration would be devastating for them,” said Maggie Elehwany, vice president of government affairs for the National Rural Health Association. “I’d love to say our message is getting through. But Congress is completely tone-deaf on how troubling the situation in rural America is.”

Hospital groups, led by the American Hospital Association, are battling to preserve tax-exempt bond financing for not-for-profit organizations, which the House bill would zero out. While the Senate bill would keep the tax exemption for interest income on new municipal private activity bonds, both the Senate and House bills would prohibit advance re-funding of prior tax-exempt bond issues.

Hospitals say ending or limiting tax-exempt bond financing would jack up their borrowing costs and hurt their ability to make capital improvements, particularly for smaller and midsize hospital systems. The Wisconsin Hospital Association projected that ending tax-exempt bond financing would increase financing costs by about 25% every year.

According to Merritt Research Services, outstanding end-of-year hospital debt totaled nearly $301 billion in long-term bonds and nearly $21 billion in short-term debt. Nearly all of that debt was issued as tax-exempt bonds.

Suggesting a possible compromise, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Tuesday that he saw “a good path going forward” to preserve tax-exempt private activity bonds “that help build and enhance the national infrastructure.”

But Hobson raised questions about Brady’s comments. “What is his definition of infrastructure?” he asked. “It suggests they may move away from a blanket repeal, but it doesn’t tell me where they’re going.”

If Republicans decided not to repeal the tax exemption for municipal bond interest income, however, they would have to scale back some of their pet tax cuts for corporations and wealthy families, even as they feel pressure to ease unpopular provisions such as ending the deductibility of state and local taxes. That could make it hard for hospital lobbyists to gain traction on this issue.

“There are a lot of giveaways in the bills that don’t leave a lot of room to recoup the money you lose,” Hobson said.

Some lobbyists hold out a faint hope that the Republicans’ tax cut effort could collapse as a result of intra-party differences, as did their drive to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

One possibility is that Maine Sen. Susan Collins flips and votes no on the tax cut bill emerging from the conference committee if congressional Republicans fail to pass two bipartisan bills she favors to stabilize the individual insurance market.

Collins said she’s received strong assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump that they will support the bills to restore the ACA’s cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers and establish a new federal reinsurance program that would lower premiums.

But the fate of those bills is in doubt, given that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was noncommittal this week, while House ultraconservatives have come out strongly against them.

Collins conceivably could be joined by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who also said she wants to see the market stabilization bills passed. If Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who voted no on the tax cut bill over deficit concerns, remains opposed, those three GOP senators could sink the tax bill.

“We’d all like to see Collins pull her vote,” Hobson said. “It was always clear that the deal she cut with McConnell won’t fly on the House side.”

One healthcare lobbyist who didn’t want to be named said there may be a deal in the works for House conservatives to support market-stabilization legislation in exchange for lifting budget sequestration caps on military spending.

But healthcare lobbyists are not holding their breath on winning major changes or seeing the tax bill collapse.

“There are chances they won’t reach a deal,” said Robert Atlas, president of EBG Advisors, which is affiliated with the healthcare law firm Epstein Becker Green. “By the same token, Republicans are so determined to pass something that they might just come together.”

Ryan eyes push for ‘entitlement reform’ in 2018

http://thehill.com/homenews/house/363642-ryan-pledges-entitlement-reform-in-2018?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=12524

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House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday said House Republicans will aim to cut spending on Medicare, Medicaid and welfare programs next year as a way to trim the federal deficit.

“We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said during an interview on Ross Kaminsky’s talk radio show.

Health-care entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid “are the big drivers of debt,” Ryan said, “so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements, because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”

Ryan said he’s been speaking privately with President Trump, who is beginning to warm to the idea of slowing the spending growth in entitlements.

During his campaign, Trump repeatedly promised not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security.

“I think the president is understanding choice and competition works everywhere, especially in Medicare,” Ryan said.

House and Senate Republicans are currently working on their plans for tax reform, which are estimated to add more than $1 trillion to the deficit. Democrats have voiced concerns that the legislation could lead to cuts to the social safety net.

Ryan is one of a growing number of GOP leaders who have mentioned the need for Congress to cut entitlement spending next year.

Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said that once the tax bill was done, “welfare reform” was up next.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), last week, said “instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare for the future” will be the best way to reduce spending and generate economic growth.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told Bloomberg TV that “the most important thing we can do with respect to the national debt, what we need to do, is obviously reform current entitlement programs for future generations.”

Ryan also mentioned that he wants to work on changing the welfare system, and Republicans have in the past expressed a desire to add work requirements to programs such as food stamps.

Speaking on the Senate floor while debating the tax bill last week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he had a “rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger and expect the federal government to do everything.”

His comments were echoed by Ryan.

“We have a welfare system that’s trapping people in poverty and effectively paying people not to work,” Ryan said Wednesday. “We’ve got to work on that.”

 

With House conservatives’ resistance, ACA stabilization bills’ prospects get dimmer

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/aca/house-gop-alexander-murray-collins-nelson-bills?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiT0RnMFkySXdPV0psWldSaCIsInQiOiJQSllQNlpcL2RhTzBDZFwvZXh5M1ZUSDJyUU5JTGw3dnh1QTVac01rZUFcL2pNUUhhMXBaQjBxK29ScHRrOHhsT3d6aE5pcFRJUWd4Sm0rYXA4S0RYVGE2N0czN2hhc2hsXC9EZk9mSGVLR0V1UFlwVDZpQmdkcll0eTBMNDUzTHlIZDIifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610&utm_medium=nl&utm_source=internal

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Senate GOP leaders won a key swing vote for their tax bill by pledging to pass bipartisan legislation to shore up the Affordable Care Act. But now it looks like those measures’ chances of becoming law are getting dimmer.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wants two bills to pass that she hopes will mitigate the effects of a provision in the tax bill that repeals the individual mandate: the Alexander-Murray bill, which would fund cost-sharing reduction payments for two years, and a bill she co-authored with Democrat Bill Nelson, which provides funding for states to establish invisible high-risk pool or reinsurance programs.

Collins voted for the Senate’s version of the tax bill—a critical win for GOP leaders, as they could only lose two votes and it failed to gain her support for previous ACA repeal bills. But she only did so after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assured her the two ACA stabilization measures would pass.

Yet while some lawmakers previously said those measures could be tacked on to the short-term spending bill Congress aims to pass this week, congressional aides now say it isn’t likely to be included, according to The Wall Street Journal. Further, while House conservatives have indicated strong support for repealing the individual mandate in the final version of the GOP tax bill, they are far from on board with the two ACA stabilization bills.

For example, Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson said he’s a “hard, hard, very hard no,” on the Alexander-Murray bill, per the WSJ article.

House Speaker Paul Ryan could also be a barrier to passing the two bills. His office told a meeting of congressional leadership offices on Monday that he wasn’t part of any deal between Collins and McConnell, The Hill reported. But his office didn’t say outright that it opposed the bills.

For her part, Collins said it will be “very problematic” if the ACA stabilization bills don’t pass, according to the WSJ. She also won’t commit to voting for the final version of the tax bill until she sees what comes out of a conference committee between the House and Senate.

Even if those measures do pass, there have been questions about whether they would do enough to soften the blow of repealing the individual mandate. The Congressional Budget Office has advised that the Alexander-Murray bill would do little to change its prediction that repealing the mandate would increase the uninsured rate and raise premiums.

A new analysis from Avalere found that Collins’ bill could help stabilize the individual market by increasing enrollment and reducing premiums in 2019, but the consulting firm’s experts cautioned that those effects could be overshadowed by repealing the individual mandate.

 

ACA mandate repeal may be less popular than GOP thinks

https://www.axios.com/individual-mandate-repeal-may-be-less-popular-than-republicans-think-2514871844.html

The tax bill that just passed the Senate eliminates the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and the House is likely to go along when Congress writes the final version. With the tax legislation moving so quickly and the mandate lost in the maze of so many other consequential provisions, we are not likely to have much public debate about this big change in health policy.

Why it matters: If we did, even though the mandate has never been popular, our polling shows that the public does not necessarily want to eliminate it as part of tax reform legislation, once they understand how it works and what the consequences of eliminating it might be.

The back story: Republicans have targeted the ACA mandate because they want the $318 billion in savings the Congressional Budget Office says they would get to help them pay for their tax cuts. (The change would save money because fewer people would get federal subsidies on the ACA marketplaces or apply for Medicaid coverage.)

They have also targeted the mandate because they think it’s so unpopular. Our polls have consistently shown that the mandate is the least popular element of the ACA and in the abstract, more Americans (55%) would eliminate the mandate than keep it (42%).

Yes, but: When people know how the mandate actually works, and are told what experts believe is likely to happen if it’s eliminated, most Americans oppose repealing it in the tax plan.

  • When people learn that they will not be affected by the mandate if they already get insurance from their employer or from Medicare or Medicaid, 62% oppose eliminating it.
  • When people are told that eliminating the mandate would increase premiums for people who buy their own coverage, as the CBO says it will, they also flip, with 60% opposing eliminating the mandate.
  • And when they’re told that 13 million fewer people will have health coverage – another CBO projection – 59% oppose eliminating the mandate.

The bottom line: Many people change their minds when they learn more about facts and consequences, which happens as the lights shine brighter on them in legislative debates. This happened to the “skinny repeal” proposal, and it would happen to single payer.

But as the tax legislation rushes through Congress and heads to the final negotiations, there is almost no chance for the public to grasp the tradeoffs that would come from eliminating the mandate and who is affected and who is not. If they did, the polling suggests, eliminating the mandate might prove far less popular than Republicans seem to think it is.

What we learned from Azar’s first hearing

https://www.axios.com/hhs-nominee-drug-prices-are-too-high-2513516063.html

Alex Azar is in line to be the next HHS secretary. Photo: Carolyn Kaster / AP

The biggest cloud hanging over Alex Azar during his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday was his pharmaceutical industry background. Republicans praised the experience as an advantage to tackle high drug costs, while Democrats said it raises conflicts of interest and encourages a revolving door mentality.

Azar’s response: He will not “implement pharma’s policy agenda. I don’t know what their list of agenda items is.”

Between the lines: Private industry experience doesn’t preclude someone from a public job. But, as my colleague Bob Herman notes, many of Azar’s responses matched up with the pharmaceutical lobby’s playbook:

  • discussing the holes in health insurance plans and high deductibles
  • targeting pharmacy benefit managers and others in the “entire channel”
  • focusing on lowering what people pay at the pharmacy counter instead of systemic issues like the rising list prices that drugmakers set

Yes, but: Azar did mention wanting to reform the drug patent system, which the drug industry almost certainly would oppose.