High-Deductible Health Plans Fall From Grace In Employer-Based Coverage

https://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2018/10/03/High-Deductible-Health-Plans-Fall-Grace-Employer-Based-Coverage

With workers harder to find and Obamacare’s tax on generous coverage postponed, employers are hitting pause on a feature of job-based medical insurance much hated by employees: the high-deductible health plan.

Companies have slowed enrollment in such coverage and, in some cases, reinstated more traditional plans as a strong job market gives workers bargaining power over pay and benefits, according to research from three organizations.

This year, 39 percent of large, corporate employers surveyed by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) offer high-deductible plans, also called “consumer-directed” coverage, as workers’ only choice. For next year, that figure is set to drop to 30 percent.

“That was a surprise, that we saw that big of a retraction,” said Brian Marcotte, the group’s CEO. “We had a lot of companies add choice back in.”

Few if any employers will return to the much more generous coverage of a decade or more ago, benefits experts said. But they’re reassessing how much pain workers can take and whether high-deductible plans control costs as advertised.

“It got to the point where employers were worried about the affordability of health care for their employees, especially their lower-paid people,” said Beth Umland, director of research for health and benefits at Mercer, a benefits consultancy that also conducted a survey.

The portion of workers in high-deductible, job-based plans peaked at 29 percent two years ago and was unchanged this year, according to new data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Deductibleswhat consumers pay for health care before insurance kicks in — have increased far faster than wages, even as paycheck deductions for premiums have also soared.

One in 4 covered employees now have a single-person deductible of $2,000 or more, KFF found.

Employers and consultants once claimed patients would become smarter medical consumers if they bore greater expense at the point of care. Those arguments aren’t heard much anymore.

Because lots of medical treatment is unplanned, hospitals and doctors proved to be much less “shoppable” than experts predicted. Workers found price-comparison tools hard to use.

High-deductible plans “didn’t really do what employers hoped they would do, which is create more sophisticated consumers of health care,” Marcotte said. “The health care system is just way too complex.”

At the same time, companies have less incentive to pare coverage as Congress has repeatedly postponed the Affordable Care Act’s “Cadillac tax” on higher-value plans.

Although deductibles are treading water, total spending on job-based health plans continues to rise much faster than the overall cost of living. That eats into workers’ pay in other ways by boosting what they contribute in premiums.

Employer-sponsored group health plans, which insure 150 million Americans — nearly half the country — tend to get less attention than politically charged coverage created by the ACA.

For these employer plans, the cost of family coverage went up 5 percent this year and is expected to rise by a similar amount next year, the research shows.

Insuring one family in a job-based plan now costs on average $19,616 in total premiums, the KFF data show. The American worker pays $5,547 of that in a country where the median household income is more than $61,000.

The KFF survey was published Tuesday; the NBGH data, in August. Mercer has released preliminary results showing similar trends.

The recent cost upticks, driven by specialty drug costs and expensive treatment for diseases such as cancer and kidney failure, are an improvement over the early 2000s, when family-coverage costs were rising by an average 7 percent a year. But they’re still nearly double recent rates of inflation and increases in worker pay.

Such growth “is unsustainable for the companies I have been working with,” said Brian Ford, a benefits consultant with Lockton Companies, echoing comments made over the decades by experts as health spending has vacuumed up more and more economic resources.

For now at least, many large employers can well afford rising health costs. Earnings for corporations in the S&P 500 have increased by double-digit percentages, driven by federal tax cuts and economic growth. Profit margins are near all-time highs.

But for workers and many smaller businesses, health costs are a heavier burden.

Premiums for family plans have gone up 55 percent in the past decade, twice as fast as worker pay, according to KFF.

Employers’ latest cost-control efforts include managing expenses for the most expensive diseases; getting workers to use nurse video-chat services and other types of “telemedicine”; and paying for primary care clinics at work or nearby.

At the “top of the list” for many companies are attempts to manage the most expensive medical claims — cases of hemophilia, terrible accidents, prematurely born infants and other diseases — that increasingly cost as much as $1 million each, Umland said.

Employers point such patients to the highest-quality doctors and hospitals and furnish guides to steer them through the system. Such steps promise to improve results, reduce complications and save money, she said.

On-site clinics cut absenteeism by eliminating the need for employees to drive across town and sit in a waiting room for two hours to get a rash or a sniffle checked or get a vaccine, consultants say.

Almost all large employers offer telemedicine, but hardly any workers use it. Thirty-nine percent of the larger companies covering telemedicine now make it comparatively less expensive for workers to consult doctors and nurses virtually, the KFF survey shows.

 

 

 

Cost of Family Health Insurance Now Nearly $20,000 a Year

https://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2018/10/03/Cost-Family-Health-Insurance-Now-Nearly-20000-Year

 

Annual premiums for employer-provided health insurance hit an average of $19,616 for a family this year, a rise of 5 percent over 2017, according to a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Employees paid an average of $5,547 for their coverage, with employers covering the rest.

The average premium for family coverage has risen 55 percent since 2008 — about twice as fast as wages, which are up 26 percent, and three times as fast as inflation, up 17 percent over a decade.

Faced with relentlessly rising health care costs, many companies have required employees to pay for more of their care before insurance kicks in, and the Kaiser survey found that deductibles are rising even faster than premiums. Among workers who have a deductible — about 85 percent of insured workers — the average deductible amount has risen to $1,573, a 212 percent increase since 2008. Deductibles have risen eight times faster than wages over the last 10 years, the survey said (see the chart below).

Kaiser President and CEO Drew Altman said that he expects health care costs to be an important political issue for the foreseeable future. “As long as out-of-pocket costs for deductibles, drugs, surprise bills and more continue to outpace wage growth, people will be frustrated by their medical bills and see health costs as huge pocketbook and political issues,” Altman said.

Read a summary of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2018 Employer Health Benefits Survey here, and the .

 

1 big thing: Out-of-network coverage is disappearing

https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-vitals-df4bea3c-3e1a-4efb-84f7-6e3247205ba7.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

Image result for health insurance out of network coverage disappearing

One reason surprise medical bills are going up: Coverage for out-of-network care is going down, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Per RWJF:

  • Just 29% of insurance plans in the individual market provide any benefits for out-of-network providers. That’s down from 58% a mere three years ago.
  • Coverage is also declining in the market for small businesses, but not nearly as dramatically — 64% of small-group plans offer some out-of-network coverage, down from 71% in 2015.
  • Those small-group numbers are probably roughly in line with where things stand among large employers’ plans.

Why it matters: The burgeoning controversy over surprise hospital bills stems partly (though not exclusively) from the bills patients receive when they’re treated by an out-of-network provider — even without their knowledge, often within an in-network facility.

  • Out-of-network coverage has obviously never been as generous as in-network coverage (that’s the whole point of creating a network), but as insurers pull back even further, more patients will likely find themselves on the hook for even bigger bills.

 

How hospitals protect high prices

https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-vitals-5af4f54b-8427-48c2-b638-933a1ae4883a.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosvitals&stream=top

Large hospital systems don’t command high prices just because patients like them, or just because they have strong market share. There’s also another big reason: their contracts with insurance companies actively prohibit the sort of competitive pressures a free market is supposed to support.

“The free market has been distorted in an unhealthy way,” health care consultant Stuart Piltch told the Wall Street Journal’s Anna Wilde Mathews for this deep dive into hospitals’ pricing practices.

How it works: Hospital systems are consolidating rapidly and buying up physicians’ practices (which charge higher prices once they’re part of a hospital).

On top of that, per WSJ: Hospitals’ deals with insurance companies “use an array of secret contract terms to protect their turf and block efforts to curb health-care costs.”

  • Some hospitals do not allow their prices to be posted on the comparison-shopping sites insurers provide to their customers.
  • They often require insurers to cover every facility or doctor the hospital owns, and prohibit insurers from offering incentives — like lower copays — for patients to use less expensive competitors.
  • When Walmart, the country’s biggest private employer, wanted to exclude the lowest-quality 5% of providers from its network, its insurers couldn’t do so because of their hospital contracts.

The other side: Hospital executives told the Journal that mergers don’t drive higher prices, and reiterated their position that hospitals have to collect higher payments from private insurance to make up for the lower rates they get from Medicare and Medicaid.

My thought bubble: High-deductible health plans are increasingly popular, in part, because of the idea that patients will use their purchasing power to drive a more efficient system overall.

  • But if Walmart doesn’t have enough market power to actually penalize low-quality providers, you and I definitely don’t, either — especially if we can’t find out what the prices are, and especially if we only have one hospital to choose from in the first place.

Go deeper: Think drug costs are bad? Try hospital prices

 

 

Is Obamacare Constitutional? The Battle Begins Again

http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2018/09/05/Obamacare-Constitutional-Battle-Begins-Again

 

The debate over the Affordable Care Act entered a new phase Wednesday as a federal court in Texas began hearing oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by 20 Republican-led states challenging the constitutionality of the 2010 law.

Eighteen Republican state attorneys general and two GOP governors bringing the suit argue that the law’s individual mandate was rendered unconstitutional when Congress lowered the penalty for individuals who don’t buy coverage to zero.

The Supreme Court, in upholding the law in 2012, deemed that penalty a tax and thus a valid and legal exercise of Congress’ power of the purse. The lawsuit claims that the law is no longer constitutional because the zeroed-out penalty can no longer raise revenue. “It’s nothing but a hollow shell because its core has been invalidated,” said Misha Tseytlin, Wisconsin’s solicitor general.

The plaintiffs also claim that this means the entire ACA — and, in particular, its protections for patients with pre-existing conditions looking to buy insurance — must be struck down because the mandate can’t be severed from the rest of the law. The Trump Justice Department decided not to defend the ACA in the case.

What a Kavanaugh Confirmation Might Mean

The case, which legal experts see as a long shot, may still wind up before the Supreme Court — which is why Democrats have brought up Obamacare and its protections for patients with pre-existing conditions in this week’s confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“Kavanaugh has signaled in private meetings with Senate Democrats that he is skeptical of some of the legal claims being asserted in the latest GOP-led effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act,” the Los Angeles Times’ Jennifer Haberkorn reported last week. Three Democrats in the meetings told the Times that Kavanaugh suggested that if one piece of the law is struck down, the rest of the law doesn’t necessarily have to fall with it.

But that may not be enough to assuage Democratic fears that Kavanaugh could be the deciding Supreme Court vote against Obamacare. “Democrats are more concerned about Kavanaugh’s past writings on expansive presidential powers, which they say could lead to his supporting efforts by the Trump administration to dismantle the health-care law without Congress,” The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz notes.

Where Public Opinion Stands

The political debate over Obamacare has shifted as public perception of the law has improved. The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll, released Wednesday, finds that 50 percent now view the law favorably while 40 percent see it unfavorably, with the divide still falling along partisan lines. Just under 80 percent of Democrats support the law, while a similar percentage of Republicans oppose it.

That may be why Republicans still view repealing the law as a potent issue with their base. Vice President Mike Pence, in Wisconsin last week to campaign for Senate candidate Leah Vukmir, said the GOP push to repeal and replace the health care law was still alive: “We made an effort to fully repeal and replace Obamacare and we’ll continue, with Leah Vukmir in the Senate, we’ll continue to go back to that,” he told reporters. With Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) replacing John McCain, a critical vote against the GOP’s 2017 Obamacare repeal bill, there has been chatter about another potential repeal effort — though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell effectively shot that down on Wednesday.

In the meantime, open enrollment on the ACA exchanges is set to begin on November 1, with the Trump administration once again providing reduced funding for outreach groups that help people enroll. A recent report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office criticized the administration’s management of Obamacare signup periods.

Public blames everyone for high health costs

https://www.kff.org/health-reform/poll-finding/kaiser-health-tracking-poll-late-summer-2018-the-election-pre-existing-conditions-and-surprises-on-medical-bills/

Health care costs remain a leading issue ahead of this year’s midterms, and voters have plenty of blame to go around, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest tracking poll.

  • Kaiser asked its respondents whether certain factors are a “major reason” health care costs are rising. (There could be multiple “major reasons.”)
  • Blame for the potential political culprits — the ACA and the Trump administration — was split about evenly.
  • But there’s a broader bipartisan agreement that industry is to blame: At least 70% faulted drug companies, hospitals and insurers. Doctors caught a break, at 49%.

Partisanship reigns, though, on the question of whether President Trump will help.

  • A mere 13% of Democrats are at least somewhat confident that Americans will pay less for prescription drugs under the Trump administration, compared with a whopping 83% of Republicans. Independents generally share Democrats’ skepticism.
  • Roughly a quarter of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans, think Trump’s public criticism of drug companies will help bring down prices.

Surprise hospital bills haven’t attracted the same political uproar as prescription drug costs, but the Kaiser poll provides more reason to believe they could be the next big controversy.

  • 67% said they’re “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about being unable to pay a surprise medical bill, while 53% fear they won’t be able to pay their deductible and 45% are afraid of the tab for their prescription drugs.
  • 39% experienced a surprise bill in the past year.