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Tag: Health Plans

The ACA May Kill Me

Through a bad roll of the genetic dice, I am the unhappy host for several, rare chronic diseases.  Any one of these would render me uninsurable, but the combination of them makes me incurable, and very difficult to treat.  The deadliest thing that I can encounter is a well-intentioned but uninformed doctor.

I have currently have excellent insurance through my husband’s job that allows me to see my varied team of treating physicians.  Two are in other states, and the rest are all heads of their departments, but none share a hospital or healthcare group. If my husband were to lose his job, I would be placed into the “high-risk-pool,” if there were any slots left, or forced onto the exchanges where my physician options would be cut significantly.

I would likely be forced to pay for healthcare coverage that I cannot use, since many doctors have been unwilling to even attempt to treat me, despite my “Cadillac” insurance plan.

I would likely have to pay cash to see my current team of physicians, which would be a tremendous financial burden on my family and likely end in bankruptcy.

I was cautiously optimistic when I heard of the end of the pre-existing condition exclusions for health insurance, but the current law will not help me at all.  It does not expand my insurance options, it will definitely NOT be less expensive than what I have now, and if I am forced to see a well intentioned, overworked and uninformed (or even distracted) doctor, it just might kill me.

BTW: I am NOT disabled, and do not take any form of government assistance.  I have owned my own business and paid that higher tax bracket for over 20 years.”

If you’ve had a bad or good experience attempting to buy health insurance on the state or federal exchanges, we’d like to know about it. Drop us a note.

I’m Male. A Non-Smoker. And in My Fifties. Can Somebody Please Explain Why I Have to Pay for Maternity Coverage?

A THCB Reader in Maryland writes:

“I realize many individual health insurance policies are being cancelled because they are not in compliance with the ACA’s new requirements. 

Do the new ACA requirements effect all individual plans sold or just those available in the exchanges?

In other words, if I am a self employed, single 50 year old male who does not want maternity, pap smears and mammograms; can I solicit an individual policy outside of the exchanges that meets these needs? For that matter, could I find a policy in the exchanges that meets these needs?”

If you’ve had a bad or good experience attempting to buy health insurance on the state or federal exchanges, we’d like to know about it. Drop us a note.

CIGNA and Me

I have a challenge for CIGNA CEO David Cordani.  Sometime this week, pick up the phone and be a secret shopper.  Call your customer service team and ask them the same thing I asked them on a Friday not long ago: does my plan cover and reimburse for flu shots, and at which participating providers in my area?  This is managed care and wellness 101.  Just not at CIGNA.

Customer service rep A says shots are covered and reimbursed, but she cannot confirm any place in St. Louis as a par provider that would bill the plan directly for payment.  Her stubborn refusal to grasp the meaning of “par provider” was infuriating.  She repeatedly reads a list of potential providers (all national companies, such as Walgreens) and then tells me I must call each location to discern its billing practices.

Wrong.  Just plainly and simply wrong because they’re all signed to national contracts.  Then, while both my German Shepherds headed for cover in another room, she hung up on me.  (I was angry but never profane or malevolent.)

Undaunted and now even more frustrated, I call customer service again.  Customer service rep B says: shots covered fully and each location noted previously is a par provider that will accept assignment.  Done, right?  Not yet.  Customer service rep A calls me back.

She has not, however, learned anything in the intervening 15 minutes, as she returns to her home base of ignorance with the accuracy of a GPS.  Finally, I demand a supervisor.  With the supervisor comes enlightenment and lower blood pressure.

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State Surveillance Endangers the Affordable Care Act: A Case Study

… and a call to action. This case study is based on my meeting with the Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA) in my home state. CHIA is an all payers claims database, a massive collection of diagnoses, locations, dates and prices for all of your health services across all of your providers and insurers. Whether it’s claims or health records, almost every state and many private clearing houses are setting up to monitor you.

Your information can be used by business to manipulate prices for maximum profit, or by you to inform your choice of health insurance plans and health care providers.

Unfortunately, business can get your information but you can’t. This reflects an industry strategy to obstruct the market-based features of the Affordable Care Act. I hope you will take this case study, edit it, and file it with the Attorney General and Governor in your state to ask for your data as a consumer protection issue. That’s what I’m about to do.

My state is #1! Go Massachusetts! My state is #1 in health care costs. It’s also #1 in implementing a health insurance exchange (Romneycare 2006) and a leader in state surveillance with the 2012 cost containment law known as Chapter 224. Chapter 224 mandates various state surveillance mechanisms including a health information exchange that monitors encounters and an all payer claims database called “the center”.

The cost containment law also includes some consumer protections. Line 1909 states:

“To the maximum extent feasible, the center shall also make data available to health care consumers, on a timely basis and in an easily readable and understandable format, data on health care services they have personally received.”

Although the state surveillance is in place, and the price fixing that keeps us #1 is ongoing, the consumer protection part of the law is not implemented. So, I took the opportunity to meet with the executive director of CHIA and their chief legal counsel and get the scoop on why the state is not following the law. To paraphrase their explanation: “It’s too hard.”

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Of Course, Then There’s The Fact That You May Be Better Off Waiting To Buy Coverage, Anyway …

Will all the White House messages, the stream of breathless Twitter updates on the number of hits and enrollments, and the press hype surrounding opening day send the uninsured public into panic mode? Will they prompt buyers to consider only the premium and click to enroll ASAP? And why not? For weeks the administration, state exchange officials and supporters of the Affordable Care Act have been telling the public how cheap premiums will be — much cheaper than expected.

A Pennsylvania woman told me she was chomping at the bit to enroll because she was eager to dump her policy from Aetna for a cheaper model from Blue Cross. Never mind that she had no idea whether the coverage was better, the same, or worse.

A Nebraska woman heard there was a worksheet to fill out and it had to be completed by October 1. It was first-come-first-served, an agent had told her.

If cheap premiums were the only thing shoppers had to consider, this sense of urgency might be fine. But it’s not. Here’s the problem.

Selecting a health insurance policy is fraught with potential missteps and misunderstandings. As the Nebraska woman told me, “You’re walking into a chasm of uncertainty. It’s like shopping for a used car. You don’t know if you’re getting a lemon,” a lemon you’re stuck with until the next open enrollment.

For consumers, the key advice right now is: don’t rush into anything. Tuesday, October 1st marked the first day of a six-month open enrollment period, not the last. Coverage doesn’t even begin until January 1, 2014, so there’s no need to buy the first policy you see. If you do want coverage on January 1, the deadline for enrolling is Dec 15.

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Not Quite Ready For Prime Time: The State Health Insurance Marketplaces and Google

All of the state health insurance marketplaces (also known as exchanges) are online, but millions of expected users may have a hard time finding them.  Marketplaces will enable shopping and enrollment mainly through their websites. States are using a variety of promotional strategies, but most people will likely find marketplaces in the same way they find other websites—through common keyword searches on Google, by far the nation’s dominant search engine. Poor search engine results can create serious barriers to shopping and enrollment, the major measures of success for marketplaces and, by extension, the success of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

We used standard methods to assess Google results for the 17 marketplaces operated by 16 states and Washington, DC that offer individuals, families, and small businesses a place to shop for health care coverage.  Over three days in mid-September, we looked at results for keywords that data from Google show people are commonly using to search for health insurance. We examined both unpaid (or “organic”) and paid (or “sponsored”) results. Although research shows that unpaid results get more attention, paid results can also lead to page views.

Our preliminary findings show that marketplaces for four states—Idaho, Maryland, New Mexico, and New York—and Washington, DC did not appear on the first page of Google results, which generates 92% of all page views.  In addition, both unpaid and paid search results for most of the remaining 12 states were frequently absent from page one.

With enrollment in the marketplaces opening October 1 for coverage beginning January 1, this would be a good time to focus on search engine optimization (SEO), the process of increasing the rankings of unpaid or “organic” search results. Once implemented, SEO results can be seen quickly, especially for a topic as popular and important as new health insurance options. However, it requires analysis, planning, and time to implement.

Methods for Conducting Search Engine Result Testing

To test search engine results for state-operated health insurance marketplaces, we used the five keywords most effective in producing page views of a prominent healthcare-related website produced by a federal client: Affordable Care Act, affordable health care, health care, health insurance, and Medicaid.

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Reforming Health Reform

It may say something about expectations for the Affordable Care Act that the simplistic “just repeal Obamacare” cries of Congressional Republicans are starting to be supplemented by proposals for its replacement.

The most detailed so far is from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which has published an unexpectedly non-doctrinaire study authored by Harvard professor Michael Chernew and seven other respected academics.

It’s far from perfect, but it’s worth reading.

Structural details of the AEI proposal, modestly titled “Best of Both Worlds,” aren’t always clear (page 1 lists four “principles,” page 5 lists five “priorities”, and page 16 lists three “major planks”), but it does attempt a bipartisan approach, combining ideas from left and right.

Some of these ideas have been contained in other proposals, such as those of Wyden and Bennett and Fuchs and Emanuel (which may damn the AEI proposal in right-wing eyes), and most recently in a THCB piece by Martin Gaynor. They include the elimination of the employer coverage tax preference, the provision of “premium support” subsidies for most individuals, and the establishment of a national insurance exchange. Together, they are designed to encourage individual choice and responsibility and to maximize competition between insurers, while removing some of the inequities of the present system (and of the ACA).

The AEI proposal assumes that eliminating the employer coverage tax preference will result in most individuals obtaining coverage through a national exchange, with national regulation of insurance plans. Current Medicaid eligibles will be included, with the replacement of acute care Medicaid funding by subsidies for conventional coverage. All individuals will be able to choose between fully-subsidized “basic plans” and more generous partially-subsidized options, typically with substantial deductibles tied to income and health status. Insurers will be encouraged to offer multi-year coverage and, unlike in the ACA, medical underwriting will be allowed. The only government financing will be for premium subsidies, to be funded by the additional income and payroll tax revenues resulting from elimination of the employer tax preference and by redirecting federal and state Medicaid payments.

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Health Exchange Confusion: Why We’re Getting the IBM Story Wrong

I was a bit surprised by the front-page headline and accompanying article in the weekend Wall Street Journal (IBM to Move Retirees Off Its Health Rolls). The headline and subtext of the article are that IBM is ending health benefits for retirees, leaving them to fend for themselves. But as I read through the specifics that doesn’t appear to be at all what’s happening. Unfortunately, the article’s main impact is to leave an unduly negative impression of private health insurance exchanges.

Retiree health benefits are a big deal, especially for employees who retire before they reach the Medicare eligibility age of 65. A typical early retiree in his or her 50s will face high premiums in the individual market compared to a younger, and typically healthier, person. If they are among the few whose company provides generous coverage they are very lucky.

[On a side note, life is about to get easier for early retirees who have to buy their own insurance, thanks to Obamacare’s banning of medical underwriting and limits on the ratio of premiums charged to older people versus younger ones.]

When a person turns 65 life gets a lot easier on the health insurance front as the federal government takes over the vast majority of costs. As a result, a retiree on Medicare is much cheaper for an employer to provide health care benefits to, since they are essentially just paying for supplemental coverage.

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The 9th Grade Class Does Obamacare Math (Can Journalists Do the Same?)

Welcome, students, to our special combined 9th grade math and civics class. Today, we’re going to look at the “Cadillac tax” in the Affordable Care Act.

Yes, Mitt, you have a question already? No, no, “Cadillac tax” is just an expression. No one is going to tax your family’s cars, Mitt, I promise.

Paul, you also have a question? I’m sorry, Paul, but if you had done the reading, you would know that the “Affordable Care Act” and “Obamacare” are the same thing. And yes, it is still the law, as I must have told you and your friends 40 times. Now can we get on with the class?

As those of you who did do the reading know, most American workers get their health insurance through their employer. The company, in turn, is allowed to deduct the cost of that insurance from its taxes. If the insurance for workers is very generous, it can encourage people to use too much medical care. This not only drives up costs, but we all pay for it a second time through the tax code. The Affordable Care Act addresses that problem by placing an excise tax on rich benefit plans starting in 2018, which is informally known as the “Cadillac tax.”

Economists of all viewpoints generally agree that an open-ended tax deduction for health insurance encourages overconsumption. What do we call that kind of agreement? Michelle?

No, Michelle, I’m afraid, “liberal conspiracy” is not the answer I was looking for. “Bipartisan consensus” was the correct response.

Rand, you seem quite agitated. Yes? “Government intervention in markets is never the right answer.” OK. Well, Rand, let’s talk about that another time and move on from civics to the mathematics part of today’s lesson. We’ll start with a word problem from the New York Times.

The Times quoted a study from a health policy journal as saying that 75 percent of health plans could be affected by the Cadillac tax over the next decade. That’s a big number, isn’t it?  And the tax itself is 40 percent – another big number. No wonder the story was on the first page of the Business section.

But here are a few other numbers from the same study: just 16 percent of plans are likely be affected by the tax when it starts in 2018 ­– a much smaller number. And the “next decade” the study is talking about starts in 2018. What the study actually says is that by 2029 the tax could reduce benefits for affected plans by 3.1 percent. That’s an even smaller number and even further away.

Class, why would the New York Times emphasize the biggest numbers they could find?

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Are Employers to Blame For Our High Medical Prices?

In a recent New York Times blog, Uwe Reinhardt places much of the blame for high and rising medical prices on passive employers. He argues that employers should work just as hard to reduce healthcare benefit costs as they work to reduce other input costs. But he then observes:

“One reason for the employers’ passivity in paying health care bills may be that they know, or should know, that the fringe benefits they purchase for their employees ultimately come out of the employees’ total pay package. In a sense, employers behave like pickpockets who take from their employees’ wallets and with the money lifted purchase goodies for their employees.”

I think that Reinhardt gets the economics wrong here and, in the process, he puts too much of the blame on employers. Reinhardt is right in one respect – employees care about their entire wage/benefit packages. If benefits deteriorate, employers will have to increase wages to retain workers. Thus, it seems that if an employer reduces benefit costs, it must increase wages by an equal amount. If that is true, we can understand why employers are passive.

The correct economic argument is a bit more nuanced. Employees do not care about the cost of their benefits; they care about the benefits. If an employer can procure the same benefits at a lower cost, the employer need not increase wages one iota. In this regard, there is nothing special about health benefits. Suppose an employer offers employees the use of company cars. Workers don’t care what the employer paid for the cars, and if the employer can purchase cars at a deep discount, it will pocket the savings.

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