How seniors are being steered toward private Medicare plans

Illustration of a wheelchair on one side of a seesaw with a hand pressing down the other side.

Today is the final day when seniors and people with disabilities can sign up for Medicare plans for 2019, and consumer groups are concerned the Trump administration is steering people into privately run Medicare Advantage plans while giving short shrift to their limitations.

Between the lines: Medicare Advantage has been growing like gangbusters for years, and has garnered bipartisan support. But the Center for Medicare Advocacy says the Trump administration is tilting the scales by broadcasting information that “is incomplete and continues to promote certain options over others.”

The big picture: The government has talked up the benefits of Medicare Advantage plans in emails to prospective enrollees during the past several weeks, the New York Times recently reported. Enrollment is approaching 22 million people, and there are reasons for its popularity.

  • Many MA plans offer $0 premiums and extra perks that don’t exist in standard Medicare, like vision and hearing coverage and gym memberships. MA plans also cap enrollees’ out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Traditional Medicare, by contrast, has higher out-of-pocket costs that usually require people to buy supplemental medical policies, called Medigap plans, as well as separate drug plans.

Yes, but: Federal marketing materials rarely mention MA’s tradeoffs.

  • MA plans limit which doctors and hospitals people can see, and they require prior approval for certain procedures. Provider directories also are loaded with errors.
  • MA plans spend less on care, yet continue to cost taxpayers more than traditional Medicare. Coding is a major problem.
  • People who enroll in MA often can’t buy a Medigap plan if they later decide to switch to traditional Medicare. And others, especially retirees leaving their jobs, may not even realize their employers are enrolling them in Medicare Advantage.

Where it stands: The Affordable Care Act slashed payments to MA insurers, but other Obama administration policies bolstered the industry. And now the Trump administration is helping it even more.

  • Obama officials built the chassis for today’s bonus system, which has been lucrative for plans (and likely wasteful, according to federal auditors).
  • A bipartisan 2015 law that adjusted Medicare payments to doctors killed the most popular Medigap plans, starting in 2020 — a move experts say could indirectly drive more people to MA.
  • HHS championed MA in a new policy document this week, on the heels of positive marketing.

What we’re hearing: Wall Street is beyond bullish on the major MA insurers like UnitedHealth Group and Humana. Supporters of MA like the idea of treating Medicare more like a marketplace, where people have to shop for a plan every year, but experts are worried about how it will affect the average enrollee.

“We know people don’t” actively engage in health insurance shopping, said Tricia Neuman, a Medicare expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation who recently wrote about MA. “It’s just too hard.”





Wedged Into Narrow-Network Plans

Despite federal rules requiring plans to keep up-to-date directories, consumers may lack access to clear information about which health plans have ‘narrow networks’ of providers or which hospitals and doctors are in or out of an insurer’s network.

As a breast cancer survivor, Donna Catanuchi said she knows she can’t go without health insurance. But her monthly premium of $855 was too high to afford.

“It was my biggest expense and killing me,” said Catanuchi, 58, of Mullica Hill, N.J.

A “navigator” who helps people find coverage through the Affordable Care Act found a solution. But it required Catanuchi, who works part time cleaning offices, to switch to a less comprehensive plan, change doctors, drive farther to her appointments and pay $110 a visit out-of-pocket — or about three times what she was paying for her follow-up cancer care.

She now pays $40 a month for coverage, after she qualified for a substantial government subsidy.

Catanuchi’s switch to a more affordable but restrictive plan reflects a broad trend in insurance plan design over the past few years. The cheaper plans offer far narrower networks of doctors and hospitals and less coverage of out-of-network care. But many consumers are overwhelmed or unaware of the trade-offs they entail, insurance commissioners and policy experts say.

With enrollment for ACA health plans beginning Nov. 1, they worry that consumers too often lack access to clear information about which health plans have “narrow networks” of medical providers or which hospitals and doctors are in or out of an insurer’s network, despite federal rules requiring plans to keep up-to-date directories.

“It’s very frustrating for consumers,” said Betsy Imholz, who represents the advocacy group Consumers Union at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. “Health plan provider directories are often inaccurate, and doctors are dropping in and out all the time.”

These more restrictive plans expose people to larger out-of-pocket costs, less access to out-of-network specialists and hospitals, and “surprise” medical bills from unforeseen out-of-network care.

More than 14 million people buy health insurance on the individual market — largely through the ACA exchanges, and they will be shopping anew this coming month.


For 2018, 73 percent of plans offered through the exchanges were either health maintenance organizations (HMOs) or exclusive provider organizations (EPOs), up from 54 percent in 2015.

Both have more restrictive networks and offer less out-of-network coverage compared with preferred provider organizations (PPOs), which represented 21 percent of health plans offered through the ACA exchanges in 2018, according to Avalere, a health research firm in Washington, D.C.

PPOs typically provide easier access to out-of-network specialists and facilities, and partial — sometimes even generous — payment for such services.

Measured another way, the number of ACA plans offering any out-of-network coverage declined to 29 percent in 2018 from 58 percent in 2015, according to a recent analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

For example, in California, HMO and EPO enrollment through Covered California, the state’s exchange, grew from 46 percent in 2016 to 70 percent in 2018, officials there said. Over the same period, PPO enrollment declined from 54 percent to 30 percent.

In contrast, PPOs have long been and remain the dominant type of health plan offered by employers nationwide. Forty-nine percent of the 152 million people and their dependents who were covered through work in 2018 were enrolled in a PPO-type plan. Only 16 percent were in HMOs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual survey of employment-based health insurance.

The good news for people buying health insurance on their own is that the trend toward narrow networks appears to be slowing.

“When premiums shot up over the past few years, insurers shifted to more restrictive plans with smaller provider networks to try and lower costs and premiums,” said Chris Sloan, a director at Avalere. “With premium increases slowing, at least for now, that could stabilize.”

Some research supports this prediction. Daniel Polsky, a health economist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that the number of ACA plans nationwide with narrow physician networks declined from 25 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in 2017.

Polsky is completing an analysis of 2018 plans and expects the percent of narrow network plans to remain “relatively constant” for this year and into 2019.

“Fewer insurers are exiting the marketplace, and there’s less churn in the plans being offered,” said Polsky. “That’s good news for consumers.”

Insurers may still be contracting with fewer hospitals, however, to constrain costs in that expensive arena of care, according to a report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. It found that 53 percent of plans had narrow hospital networks in 2017, up from 48 percent in 2014.

“Narrow networks are a trade-off,” said Paul Ginsburg, a health care economist at the Brookings Institution. “They can be successful when done well. At a time when we need to find ways to control rising health care costs, narrow networks are one legitimate strategy.”

Ginsburg also notes that there’s no evidence to date that the quality of care is any less in narrow versus broader networks, or that people are being denied access to needed care.

Mike Kreidler, Washington state’s insurance commissioner, said ACA insurers in that state “are figuring out they can’t get away with provider networks that are inadequate to meet people’s needs.”

“People have voted with their feet, moving to more affordable choices like HMOs but they won’t tolerate draconian restrictions,” Kreidler said.

The state is stepping in, too. In December 2017, Kreidler fined one insurer — Coordinated Care — $1.5 million for failing to maintain an adequate network of doctors. The state suspended $1 million of the fine if the insurer had no further violations. In March 2018, the plan was docked another $100,000 for similar gaps, especially a paucity of specialists in immunology, dermatology and rheumatology. The $900,000 in potential fines continues to hang over the company’s head.

Centene Corp, which owns Coordinated Care, has pledged to improve its network.

Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman said she expects residents buying insurance in the individual marketplace for 2019 to have a wider choice of providers in their networks.

“We think and hope insurers are gradually building more stable networks of providers,” said Altman.


Bad publicity and recent state laws are pushing insurers to modify their practices and shore up their networks.

About 20 states now have laws restricting surprise bills or balance billing, or which mandate mediation over disputed medical bills, especially those stemming from emergency care.

Even more have rules on maintaining accurate, up-to-date provider directories.

The problem is the laws vary widely in the degree to which they “truly protect consumers,” said Claire McAndrew, a health policy analyst at Families USA, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “It’s a patchwork system with some strong consumer protections and a lot of weaker ones.”

“Some states don’t have the resources to enforce rules in this area,” said Justin Giovannelli, a researcher at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University. “That takes us backward in assuring consumers get coverage that meets their needs.”



Bad Debt Grows as Out-Of-Network Benefits Shrink

Doc taking money

A lack of OON benefits leads to never-ending financial obligations for patients and a greater likelihood of bad debt for providers.

Surprise, sky-high medical bills have been irking patients and legislators a lot lately, but as the number of patients with out-of-network (OON) benefits shrinks, the problem of high bills will continue to grow, according to research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

A lack of OON benefits leads to never-ending financial obligations for patients and a greater likelihood of bad debt for providers, according to Katherine Hempstead, PhD, senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Hempstead authored the new analysis, which looked at trends in OON benefits in the individual and small group markets.

“Out of network benefits have become much less common, especially in the individual market, where the proportion of plans with OON benefits has declined from 58% in 2015 to 29% in 2018 in the individual market,” she tells HealthLeaders via email.

“In the small group market, the decline was smaller: 71% to 64%,” she says.

However, even plans that do offer OON benefits increasingly have very high deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket (MOOP) caps.

For instance, in the individual market, the median OON deductible is approximately $12,000, the analysis shows. Some are even higher.

“A sizable share of plans in the individual markets have OON deductibles that exceed $20,000, and have no MOOP, meaning that patient obligations can continue infinitely,” Hempstead says.

For hospitals and health systems, all of this adds up to more patients who will be unable to pay their bills.

“The takeaway for revenue cycle managers is that most customers in the individual and small group market have little or no out-of-network coverage,” Hempstead says.

Because of this lack of OON coverage, hospitals and health systems should do some investigating beforehand.

“It will be important to ascertain in-network status before providing services, or the likelihood of bad debt will be high,” Hempstead says.

That’s something that hospitals and health systems can feasibly do, “especially if they have a price estimator tool,” says Donella J. Lubelczyk, RN, BSN, ACM-RN, CRC, CRCR, executive director of revenue cycle at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire.

“They would need to do this with the patient and make sure the patients understand their out-of-network costs prior to selecting the service(s),” Lubelczyk says via email.

Patients also have a responsibility to know which providers are in and out of their networks.

A recent HealthSparq survey shows that 40% of patients who received a surprise bill said they could have done more to better understand their benefits and healthcare processes.

“Patients really need to understand their in-network plans, but most people do not and need to get assistance,” Lubelczyk says.


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

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.


  • 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.


UnitedHealthcare issues warning to hospitals about out-of-network coverage for ER physicians


UnitedHealth plans to update its provider directories to show its beneficiaries those hospitals that use non-participating hospital-based physicians.


UnitedHealthcare sent out an advanced notice to more than 700 hospitals that its emergency room contractor, Envision Healthcare, could be out of network starting January 1, 2019. 


Dissolving the contract is expected to result in more “surprise bills” for patients who are unaware that their ER doctor, anesthesiologist or radiologist is out-of-network for their insurance coverage.


Both hospitals and UnitedHealthcare would bear the brunt of patient complaints, at a time when consumer satisfaction is seen as a priority for value-based care and in rankings that include patient surveys.

UnitedHealth said it plans to update its provider directories to show its beneficiaries those hospitals that use non-participating hospital-based physicians. It is also activating a dedicated hotline for members to call if they receive a surprise bill from Envision and UnitedHealth said it would advocate on their behalf to have the bill waived or reduced.


“A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows ER physicians are paid on average 297 percent of what Medicare allows,” said Dan Rosenthal, president of UnitedHealthcare Networks in the letter to hospitals. “In comparison, Envision demands to be paid nearly 600 percent of Medicare, two times this amount for ER physician services.”

Envision said by statement, “We have offered United a solution that helps with the affordability of healthcare, and yet United is making egregious demands that will force all of our physicians out of network.  They’ve elected to use data for one group in one market and have presented it as the single source of truth. This is misleading and designed to fit their narrative rather than the reality.”


Envision said there were never any problems until UnitedHealth demanded massive cuts to allow it to stay in-network. It calls the insurer’s letters to its hospital partners “aggressive” and “filled with half-truths and inaccuracies.”

UnitedHealthcare, the country’s largest insurer, said it has offered Envision competitive rates for all of their hospital-based services, similar to what other ER and hospital-based physicians are paid in each market, and given them the opportunity to earn additional reimbursement based on the value they bring to customers.

In May, a court ordered arbitration between the insurer and network provider after dismissing a lawsuit brought by Envision claiming UnitedHealthcare changed its payment rate agreement. Envision charged patients at rates three times higher than it should have, UnitedHealth said. Envision said this was due to out-of-network charges because the insurer refused to bring Envision provider groups into their contract agreement.


This is about money, with patients paying the difference and hospitals caught in the middle. A hospital can choose to employ physicians, but many doctors are independent contractors, including emergency room physicians. Since, Envision has its highest concentration of contracts with UnitedHealthcare in Florida, Texas and Arizona and to a lesser extent, in New York, Wisconsin, Georgia, Tennessee and California, both patients and hospitals in those regions are likely to find themselves managing more surprise bills. 

Surprise hospitals bills are everywhere–vAsnSwHNeHq4GDaN8Cgv0LEDs4F1vRoBgf-AD0Ffvr_xhZ6Zag4iXAnKsYOk0ihO1ZOmVJPHcu_xzt1X1to_tmySnug&_hsmi=65145692&stream=top-stories#item-start

Surprise hospital bills are remarkably common, my colleague Caitlin Owens reports. A new Kaiser Family Foundation brief finds that, among people with employer-based coverage, almost 1 in 5 patients admitted to the hospital end up getting a bill from an out-of-network provider.

Why it matters: Patients have to pay more out of their own pockets for out-of-network care.

  • As a lot of excellent recent reporting on emergency room billing has shown, it can be almost impossible to avoid out-of-network bills even when you take pains to ensure you’re going to an in-network hospital.

Balance billing — the practice of providers billing patients for the difference between their charges and insurance payments — is often responsible for these situations.

  • The Affordable Care Act required private plans to limit annual cost-sharing, but these generally only apply to in-network service charges.
  • Patients with emergency room claims and psychological/substance abuse claims are more at risk of receiving an out-of-network provider claim, per Kaiser.

By the numbers:

  • For inpatient admissions, those who use in-network facilities still receive a claim from an out-of-network provider 15.4% of the time.



Insurers Can Bend Out-Of-Network Rules For Patients Who Need Specific Doctors

Insurers Can Bend Out-Of-Network Rules For Patients Who Need Specific Doctors

The Affordable Care Act has so far survived Republican attempts to replace it, but many people still face insurance concerns. Below, I answer three questions from readers.

Q: I have a rare disease, and there is literally only one specialist in my area with the expertise needed to treat me. I am self-employed and have to buy my own insurance. What do I do next year if there are zero insurance plans available that allow me to see my specialist? I cannot “break up” with my sub-specialty oncologist. I must be able to see the doctor that is literally saving my life and keeping me alive.

If the plan you pick covers out-of-network providers, you can continue to see your cancer specialist, although you’ll have to pay a higher percentage of the cost than if you were seeing someone in your plan’s network.

But many plans these days don’t provide any out-of-network coverage. This is certainly true of plans sold on the health insurance exchanges.

The situation you’re concerned about — that a specialist you consider crucial to your care isn’t in a plan’s provider network — isn’t uncommon, said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms.

If this happens, you can contact your plan and make the case that this particular provider is the only one who has the expertise to meet your needs. (Unfortunately, you probably can’t get this coverage assurance before you sign up.) Then ask your plan to make an exception and treat the out-of-network specialist as if she were in network for cost-sharing purposes. So, if in your plan an in-network specialist visit requires a $250 copayment, for example, the plan would agree that’s what you’d be charged to see your out-of-network specialist.

Or not. It’s up to the plan officials, and they may argue that someone in network has the expertise you need. If you disagree, you can appeal that decision.

But it may not come to that, said Corlette.

“Plans are prepared for this — the good ones are, anyway,” she said. “My understanding is that it’s pretty routine to grant exceptions for narrow subspecialties.”

Q: My company has asked employees to pay the Cadillac tax rather than putting the burden  on the company. They are also telling us not to worry because it will never happen, but want us to agree that if it does we will take on the cost. Can they do that?

Let’s step back for a minute. The so-called Cadillac tax is a 40 percent surcharge on the value of health plans above the thresholds of $10,200 for single coverage and $27,500 for family plans.

A few months ago when it looked as if the ACA was going to be replaced, many employers believed, as yours apparently still does, that the Cadillac tax would never become effective. Both the House and Senate bills delayed the tax until 2026, and a lot can happen between now and then. With the collapse of efforts to repeal the ACA, however, the tax is on the front burner once again, said J.D. Piro, who leads the health and law group at benefits consultant Aon Hewitt. It’s set to take effect in 2020.

Under the law, insurers or employers would be responsible for paying the tax, but experts say the costs would likely be passed through to enrollees (whether or not you explicitly agree to absorb them). So it may not matter how you respond to your employer.

Also, employers who don’t want to pay the surcharge might sidestep the issue by reducing the value of the plans they offer, said Piro. For example, they could increase employee deductibles and other cost-sharing, make coverage less generous or shrink the provider network.

“That’s simplest way to avoid the tax,” he said.

Q: I need to purchase affordable health insurance for my two daughters who are 19 and 17. Is Trump insurance available yet? I need something I can afford and everything is so expensive.

President Donald Trump never put forward a proposal to replace the ACA. Instead, he backed the House and Senate replacement versions, which ultimately failed. But those versions might not have addressed your concerns, and you could have several options through the ACA.

“Coverage wouldn’t necessarily have been cheaper,” said Judith Solomon, vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Under the Senate bill, for example, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted that average 2018 premiums for single coverage would be 20 percent higher than this year’s. In 2020, however, premiums would be 30 percent lower than under current law, on average. But deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs would be higher for most people under the Senate bill, according to the CBO.

Premiums for young people would generally have declined. The bill would have allowed insurers to vary rates to a greater degree based on age, resulting in lower premiums for young people. In addition, premium tax credits generally would have increased for young people with incomes above 150 percent of the poverty level.

Your current coverage options under the ACA depend on your family situation. If you have coverage available to you through your employer, you can keep your daughters on your plan until they turn 26. For many parents, this is the most affordable, comprehensive option.

If that’s not a possibility, assuming the three of you live together and you claim them as dependents on your taxes, you may qualify for subsidized coverage on the health insurance marketplace next year. Your household income would need to be no more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level (about $82,000 for a family of three). You can apply for that coverage in the fall.

If you live in one of the 31 states plus the District of Columbia that have expanded Medicaid coverage to adults with incomes below 138 percent of the poverty level (about $28,000 for a family of three), you could qualify for that program. You don’t have to wait for open enrollment to sign up for Medicaid.