Trump administration appeals association health plan ruling

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/dept-labor-defends-rights-small-businesses-to-expanded-health-plans?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTXpCbFpXWXpPR1JtTTJSayIsInQiOiIyUWdwd0NuaU9YSUFYcmg1UnlDUm84Tk4yXC8weWpLOG5hT0lXWHJSRjIzMllDUFZmU05XSFpKWmRrQ3R0NjhPV3VSbk5KTFVYbEdPMXZmMHF1Q0JRbCtRNzZzSWFPV1Y2N1hnMmpRVlNtS1wvNmRZSE1YREZnbUNLM3ZnMXE2ejhBIn0%3D&mrkid=959610

Gavel court room lawsuit judge

The Trump administration will appeal a judge’s ruling that struck down much of its rule expanding association health plans (AHPs).

The rule made it easier for an association of employers to establish an employee welfare plan—regulated under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Affordable Care Act—as a single employer plan. In other words, small employers can work together with others in their industry or geographic area to purchase a larger health plan.

The Department of Labor filed a notice of appeal (PDF) Friday.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit saying that the definition of “employer” in ERISA was not reasonable. A federal district court agreed and set aside regulations for qualifying associations, saying that the Labor Department failed to put a limit on the types of associations that can qualify to sponsor an AHP.

“This appeal is welcomed by associations across the country who have invested their time, money and reputation to launch health plans under the 2018 regulation,” Kev Coleman, president and founder of AssociationHealthPlans.com, said in a statement. “This regulation marked a watershed in health policy inasmuch as it corrected a basic unfairness existing in health coverage costs between small companies and large companies.”

Critics, meanwhile, argue the plans offer skimpy coverage that can leave consumers at risk.

Currently, there are an estimated 30,000 small-business employees and their dependents using these plans. According to a 2019 healthcare survey by AssociationHealthPlans.com, four out of five respondents supported small businesses working together to offer large company health insurance plans.

In Congress, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, joined Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, in introducing legislation to prevent small business employees from losing their healthcare coverage. The legislation would ensure a pathway for small businesses to offer AHPs under the Labor Department’s final rule.

 

 

 

 

A Sense of Alarm as Rural Hospitals Keep Closing

The potential health and economic consequences of a trend associated with states that have turned down Medicaid expansion.

Hospitals are often thought of as the hubs of our health care system. But hospital closings are rising, particularly in some communities.

“Options are dwindling for many rural families, and remote communities are hardest hit,” said Katy Kozhimannil, an associate professor and health researcher at the University of Minnesota.

Beyond the potential health consequences for the people living nearby, hospital closings can exact an economic toll, and are associated with some states’ decisions not to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Since 2010, nearly 90 rural hospitals have shut their doors. By one estimate, hundreds of other rural hospitals are at risk of doing so.

In its June report to Congress, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission found that of the 67 rural hospitals that closed since 2013, about one-third were more than 20 miles from the next closest hospital.

study published last year in Health Affairs by researchers from the University of Minnesota found that over half of rural counties now lack obstetric services. Another study, published in Health Services Research, showed that such closures increase the distance pregnant women must travel for delivery.

And another published earlier this year in JAMA found that higher-risk, preterm births are more likely in counties without obstetric units. (Some hospitals close obstetric units without closing the entire hospital.)

Ms. Kozhimannil, a co-author of all three studies, said, “What’s left are maternity care deserts in some of the most vulnerable communities, putting pregnant women and their babies at risk.

In July, after The New York Times wrote about the struggles of rural hospitals, some doctors responded by noting that rising malpractice premiums had made it, as one put it, “economically infeasible nowadays to practice obstetrics in rural areas.”

Many other types of specialists tend to cluster around hospitals. When a hospital leaves a community, so can many of those specialists. Care for mental health and substance use are among those most likely to be in short supply after rural hospital closures.

The closure of trauma centers has also accelerated since 2001, and disproportionately in rural areas, according to a study in Health Affairs. The resulting increased travel time for trauma cases heightens the risk of adverse outcomes, including death.

Another study found that greater travel time to hospitals is associated with higher mortality rates for coronary artery bypass graft patients.

In many communities, hospitals are among the largest employers. They also draw other businesses to an area, including those within health care and others that support it (like laundry and food services, or construction).

A study in Health Services Research found that when a community loses its only hospital, per capita income falls by about 4 percent, and the unemployment increases by 1.6 percentage points.

Not all closures are problematic. Some are in areas with sufficient hospital capacity. Moreover, in many cases hospitals that close offer relatively poorer quality care than nearby ones that remain open. This forces patients into higher-quality facilities and may offset negative effects associated with the additional distance they must travel.

Perhaps for these reasons, one study published in Health Affairs found no effect of hospital closures on mortality for Medicare patients. Because it focused on older patients, the study may have missed adverse effects on those younger than 65. Nevertheless, the study found that hospital closings were associated with reduced readmission rates, which is regarded as a sign of increased quality. So it seems consolidating services at larger hospitals can sometimes help, not harm, patients.

“There are real trade-offs between consolidating expertise at larger centers versus maintaining access in local communities,” said Karen Joynt Maddox, a cardiologist and health researcher with the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and an author of the study. “The problem is that we don’t have a systematic approach to determine which services are critical to provide locally, and which are best kept at referral centers.”

Many factors can underlie the financial decision to close a hospital. Rural populations are shrinking, and the trend of hospital mergers and acquisitions can contribute to closures as services are consolidated.

Another factor: Over the long term, we are using less hospital care as more services are shifted to outpatient settings and as inpatient care is performed more rapidly. In 1960, an average appendectomy required over six days in the hospital; today one to two days is the norm.

Part of the story is political: the decision by many red states not to take advantage of federal funding to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. Some states cited fiscal concerns for their decisions, but ideological opposition to Obamacare was another factor.

In rural areas, lower incomes and higher rates of uninsured people contribute to higher levels of uncompensated hospital care — meaning many people are unable to pay their hospital bills. Uncompensated care became less of a problem in hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid.

In a Commonwealth Fund Issue Brief, researchers from Northwestern Kellogg School of Management found that hospitals in Medicaid expansion states saved $6.2 billion in uncompensated care, with the largest reductions in states with the highest proportion of low-income and uninsured patients. Consistent with these findings, the vast majority of recent hospital closings have been in states that have not expanded Medicaid.

In every year since 2011, more hospitals have closed than opened. In 2016, for example, 21 hospitals closed, 15 of them in rural communities. This month, another rural hospital in Kansas announced it was closing, and next week people in Kansas, and in some other states, will vote in elections that could decide whether Medicaid is expanded.

Richard Lindrooth, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Public Health, led a study in Health Affairs on the relationship between Medicaid expansion and hospitals’ financial health. Hospitals in nonexpansion states took a financial hit and were far more likely to close. In the continuing battle within some states about whether or not to expand Medicaid, “hospitals’ futures hang in the balance,” he said.

 

 

The President’s Executive Order: Less Than Meets The Eye?

http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2017/10/20/the-presidents-executive-order-less-than-meets-the-eye/

Image result for less than meets the eye

The executive order (EO) signed by President Donald Trump on October 12 directs the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor, and Treasury to develop federal regulations that could allow new and less expensive health insurance options for employers and consumers.

The EO marks a shift in the administration’s strategy on health care. After failing to get legislation through Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the administration is now attempting to move away from the ACA’s heavily-regulated markets through changes that can be implemented without a change in the law.

The executive order does not itself change any federal regulations. Instead, it sets into motion a policy development process that could lead to new regulations or regulatory guidance within the confines of current law. Although the EO gives general policy direction, the specific content of future regulations depends on legal and technical analysis to be conducted by the agencies.

The policy themes are familiar: expand access to lower-cost insurance outside of the ACA’s exchange mechanism and enhance the use of financing vehicles to help workers pay for their care. The extent of possible changes is limited. For example, the EO seeks to allow the sale of insurance across state lines, but relies on potentially expanding the ability of employers to form Association Health Plans (AHPs) under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Individuals purchasing their own insurance would continue to be subject to federal and state insurance market rules.

An Uncertain And Potentially Lengthy Timeline

The timeline for producing rule changes is uncertain. The EO gives the agencies 60 days to “consider proposing regulations or revising guidance” without specifying the date when a proposed rule would be released. It typically takes months, and sometimes years, to put a new federal regulation into effect.

The Administrative Procedures Act specifies that agencies must follow an open public process when they issue regulations. Following an often-lengthy internal clearance process, a proposed rule is issued that invites public comments. The final rule taking those comments into consideration must be developed and cleared before publication. Less time is required if an agency determines that it can issue an interim final rule without first publishing a proposed rule. Interim final rules generally take effect immediately.

Even if the federal agencies move expeditiously, it is unlikely that new regulations could affect the marketplace for health insurance in 2018. ACA exchange plans have been finalized in time for this year’s open enrollment period, starting November 1. Most employers will have signed contracts for their insurance plans for next year well before the end of 2017 as well. Most Americans will be required to select next year’s coverage before the end of this year. Realistically, any new rules are likely to be effective starting in 2019 or later.

Major Policy Areas

The EO targets three policy areas for change.

Association Health Plans (AHPs)

Republicans have long supported the use of AHPs to give small employers some of the advantages that large employers have in purchasing insurance for their workers. AHPs potentially could allow small firms to operate as one large employer plan, giving them scale economies and greater market power than they have purchasing insurance as separate companies. In addition, AHPs could be exempted from some of the ACA’s requirements (including essential health benefits and community-rated premiums). However, as the law is now interpreted, AHPs are subject to the same state and federal regulations that apply to the small group and individual insurance markets, largely eliminating their usefulness.

The EO directs the Labor Department, which oversees the regulation of employer plans, to look for ways to make it easier for small businesses to join AHPs. The existing rules for multi-employer insurance plans are complex, but it may be possible that ERISA could be reinterpreted to make AHPs more effective and attractive than they are today. The EO raises the possibility that AHPs could be formed among employers operating in the same geographic area or industry. Details may not be available for some time.

Whatever changes are pursued will be heavily scrutinized and likely challenged in court. Insurers selling in ACA-regulated markets might oppose the new regulations if they expect AHPs to attract healthier individuals from more comprehensive (and more expensive) exchange plans.

It is not clear that AHPs would be a better option for small employers than they have today. Forming larger groups can help spread insurance risk and administrative costs. Larger plans can also use their leverage to push better managed care protocols into their insurance plans, and thus cut costs. However, the voluntary nature of AHPs could result in plans competing for healthier groups of workers rather than investing the resources necessary to make health care more efficient and effective.

Small employers may have the option of joining more than one AHP or staying in the regulated market. Competing AHPs might structure their coverage to attract firms with younger, healthier workers. The press statement accompanying the EO states that employers would not be allowed to discriminate among workers based on their health status. But small employers would not be forced to join AHPs, and the rules for joining might be written in ways that implicitly and subtly target firms with healthier workers.

AHPs could add value to the health system if they moved people out of expensive, unmanaged fee-for-service insurance with high administrative costs into better-run managed care plans that cut expenses through economies of scale and elimination of unnecessary use of services. The Trump administration might find a way within current law to make these kinds of AHPs available without shifting higher premiums onto less healthy workers. But the history of AHPs and related types of organizations is not promising. Many previous multi-employer plans have suffered from undercapitalization, and have gone insolvent. It will not be easy to secure the necessary capital to build a viable AHP in a market in which small employers may have several insurance options.

Short-Term, Limited Duration Insurance (STLDI)

Short-term health insurance policies offer coverage to individuals who are unable to obtain other forms of health insurance but want to be protected for a specific period of time. STDLI plans are not subject to the ACA’s insurance rules. They do not have to cover the ACA’s essential health benefits, they do not cover pre-existing conditions, and they are not required to cover people in poor health. One study found that STDLI plans are one-third the price of exchange plans. These plans have generally been viewed as niche products, sold primarily to people who are between jobs.

The EO calls on HHS, Labor, and Treasury to reverse decisions of the Obama administration that restricted the availability of STLDI plans. A regulation issued on October 31, 2016 limits their duration to no more than three months, and the plans are not renewable. Moreover, enrollment in an STLDI plan does not constitute coverage under the ACA’s individual mandate. It seems likely that the agencies have the authority under current law to allow STLDI plans to cover an individual for up to one year and to be renewable.

STLDI plans are clearly not for everyone but could prove attractive to some customers. Low-cost coverage should be made available to individuals who change jobs and those who are unable to buy exchange coverage after the open season has ended. Consumers enrolled in STLDI plans who develop a serious medical condition would probably not be able to renew their coverage but would have access to higher-premium plans offered on the ACA-regulated marketplace.

An open question is whether the Trump administration will also attempt to exempt STLDI enrollees from the individual mandate’s tax penalties. That would make short-term plans more attractive for healthy people and thus exacerbate the adverse selection that is already driving up premiums for ACA-compliant plans.

Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs)

HRAs allow employers to reimburse workers for their families’ medical expenses, including deductibles and other cost-sharing payments and health items not covered by insurance. Unlike health savings accounts, workers do not contribute to HRAs. Payments made by an employer through an HRA are not treated as taxable income for the worker. The Obama administration required HRAs to be used solely in conjunction with ACA-compliant health plans.

The EO directs the agencies to propose ways to expand the availability and use of HRAs. The EO specifically states an intention to allow HRAs to be used for workers purchasing their own non-group coverage. The administration may be planning to allow HRA funds to be used to pay premiums and cost-sharing in the individual insurance market, including plans that are not ACA-compliant. Those plans might include AHP plans and STDLI, depending on other regulatory changes that might result from the EO.

For some small employers, an expanded role for HRAs may be an attractive way to help pay insurance premiums for their workers without sponsoring an insurance plan themselves. But it is far from clear how much authority there is under current law to make this kind of change. Moreover, even if the administration were able to create a larger role for HRAs, workers in small firms may not be eager to get their insurance through the ACA exchanges instead of through their place of work.

Premature Predictions

Several commentators have said that the Trump administration’s EO would result in risk segmentation that would drive up premiums and could eventually lead to dismantling the ACA exchanges. That prediction seems premature. AHPs as they exist today do not pose a threat to the ACA. It remains to be seen if the administration can make room for a viable AHP option, and whether or not that option will adversely affect the ACA exchanges. The STLDI plans are a niche market today. While it is possible their role could expand, their value is limited and attractive to only a small segment of the market. The administration’s vision for HRAs is not clear enough to predict how any changes would affect the existing ACA markets.

Each of the changes contemplated by the Trump EO would take time to put into effect. Once the rules are changed, the private sector would need to make investments to change their business practices. It is doubtful there would be a rapid transition.

Millions of consumers are enrolled in ACA-compliant plans today. The ACA exchanges face an elevated level of adverse selection. But those markets remain the only real game in town primarily because the ACA’s generous premium subsidies are only available through the exchanges. The President’s EO cannot change this reality. Whatever is done in response to the EO is likely to have a less dramatic effect on the market than some in the administration now hope, and others now fear.

 

New 11-Country Health Care Survey: U.S. Adults Skip Care Due To Costs, Struggle Financially, And Have The Worst Health

http://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/press-releases/2016/nov/international-survey-release

A new 11-country survey from The Commonwealth Fund finds that adults in the United States are far more likely than those in 10 other high-income nations to go without needed health care because of costs and to struggle to afford basic necessities such as housing and healthy food. The survey findings, published today as a Health Affairs Web First article, also indicate that Americans are sicker than people in other countries and experience high levels of emotional distress.

Despite a significant decline from 2013, about one-third (33%) of U.S. adults went without recommended care, did not see a doctor when sick, or failed to fill prescriptions because of cost. By comparison, as few as 7 percent in the U.K. and Germany and 8 percent in the Netherlands and Sweden experienced these cost problems. The U.S. also stands out for its exceptionally high rate of material hardship. Fifteen percent of U.S. adults reported worrying about having enough money for nutritious food and 16 percent reported struggling to afford their rent or mortgage.

Adults in the U.S. were also the most likely to be in poor health. More than a quarter (28%) of U.S. respondents reported having multiple chronic illnesses—by far the highest rate of any country surveyed—and a similar proportion (26%) said they experienced emotional distress in the past year that was difficult to cope with on their own. Respondents in Canada (27%) and Sweden (24%) reported similar levels of emotional distress.

The Commonwealth Fund’s 2016 international survey interviewed 26,863 adults from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Questions focused on people’s experiences with their country’s health care system—comparing their assessments of health care access, quality, and affordability—as well as on self-reported health and well-being. The study’s authors note that by examining the variation in performance of national health systems, the U.S. can gain useful insights as it implements new reforms and seeks to meet the needs of vulnerable patients.

“Previous surveys have shown that, especially compared to other industrialized nations, the U.S. has far too many people who can’t afford the care they need, even when they have health insurance,” said Robin Osborn, Vice President and Director of The Commonwealth Fund’s International Program in Health Policy and Practice Innovations and the study’s lead author. “This survey underscores that we can do better for our sickest and poorest patients, and that should be a high priority in efforts to improve our current system.”