Seeing beyond size in vision care networks

There are many other factors to consider when it comes to deciding which vision care network best fits the needs of your employees. Read this blog post to learn more.


Most people believe that “size matters” in regards to provider networks, but in the world of vision care there are other important factors to consider when deciding which network matches the needs of employees. Network members usually see their vision provider for routine services just once per year. When an employer changes vision administrators, employee in-network utilization is more than 90% regardless of the new network size. Why? Employees are not concerned about changing providers to access in-network benefits. Plus, the new vision provider network will always provide access to multiple providers wherever the employee lives and works.

But what about the quality of the vision care network? To properly assess this measurement of competing networks, employers and benefit advisers need to ask several different questions.

Determine the network’s quality
The quality of the network is vital. Start asking these questions: How are vision care providers credentialed? Do they follow the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) guidelines developed to improve healthcare quality? Are there provider audit programs provided on an ongoing basis? Is the vision care provider re-credentialed and how often? How frequently are reviews conducted of the Office of Inspector General and Medicare and Medicaid disbarment lists?

Establish the network’s effectiveness
Once you know you have a quality network, now you must ask how effective the network is. How diverse is the network? Are there ample ophthalmologists, optometrists and optical retailers we can access? Are some private practitioners? You want to make sure that a solid provider mix is available to give employees options when choosing a vision care provider.

It’s critical to know what languages are spoken within the employee population as well as the providers who care for them. If you have a large population who speak a certain language you want to make sure your network gives them access to people who can truly understand them and with whom they feel comfortable.

Finally, look at the hours of operations. With schedules being busier now than ever before, people need flexibility when it comes to visiting hours. Do they offer evening hours? Weekend hours? This is particularly important for single parents who work during the week and need the flexibility to visit an eye care professional with his or her child after work.

Having a diverse, quality vision care provider network with convenient access helps keep employees happy, healthy and in-network.

Other factors to consider
One of the other factors to be cognizant of is network ownership. Today, many managed vision care companies are involved in not only providing coverage for vision care but also in delivering it. This means the vision benefits company you’re considering may own optical laboratories, frame companies or retail locations, which can pose conflicts of interest between you, your employees and the managed vision care company. Their need to produce profits can lead to undo pressure on your employees to purchase expensive and potentially unnecessary lens types, materials and options. Coupled with direct to consumer advertising and the expansion of brands, eyeglasses have become even more expensive.

This leads to another factor for consideration. Does the potential vision benefit administrator provide meaningful information to help your employees make informed decisions about what they really need, when it comes to the myriad of options available for frames, lenses and lens options?

Network matching
Start by remembering two things when matching networks. First, if you’ve changed vision carriers in the past, you selected a network that was not identical to your previous one. Vision networks never match each other. Some have higher proportions of independent providers and lower percentages of large retailer chains. Second, the infrequency with which the vision benefit is available to be used mitigates the impact of changing providers. People don’t have the same attachment to their eye care professional as they do with their physician.

Beyond quality and effectiveness is the important factor of access. The vision industry has grown to a point where there are often many more providers than would ever be necessary to provide convenient access for your membership. The reality is that two networks may be equally sized in an area and yet there may be little overlap, making the selection of the best network with the lowest overall cost a better strategic direction than simply selecting the one with the highest provider match.

The vision industry has long demonstrated that employees are willing to select new providers, especially when costs are more competitive, and services are more convenient.

SOURCE: Moroff, C (22 August 2018) "Seeing beyond size in vision care networks" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/seeing-beyond-size-in-vision-care-networks?feed=00000152-a2fb-d118-ab57-b3ff6e310000


Retirement ABCs: How employers can help baby boomers prepare

Sixty-six percent of baby boomers are working past the traditional retirement age. There are specific rules and regulations regarding contributions and withdrawals in retirement. Continue reading to learn how employers can help prepare their employers for retirement.


Seventy-four million: That’s the estimated number of baby boomers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And 66% of baby boomers are working past traditional retirement ages for a variety of reasons. Some feel they can’t afford to retire, particularly with the looming high costs of healthcare; others may choose to work longer to keep their brains active or because they fear the adjustment to a less structured lifestyle.

Older workers approaching full retirement age (which varies, depending on when they were born) where they can begin receiving 100% of Social Security, face some daunting decisions about Medicare, Social Security and retirement plans such as health savings accounts and 401(k)s — unchartered territory until this point in their lives. There are specific rules about contributions and withdrawals in retirement, and employers should help with the education process. Here are three ways to do so.

Break down the HSA rules from a retiree perspective. If you offer HSAs to your employees, it’s important they understand how HSAs work with Medicare: The IRS dictates that a person can’t contribute to an HSA if they’re enrolled in part of Medicare (Part A, Part D, etc.) However, they can draw on funds already in the account to pay for qualified medical expenses and premiums for Medicare Parts B, C and D (but generally not Medicare supplement plans or Medigap insurance premiums).

Importantly, your employees may be penalized for delaying Medicare, depending on the number of employees you have and whether you have group health insurance. These requirements may not be well known by your employees and should be communicated clearly.

Of course, because Medicare, Social Security and any retirement plans involve several layers of government rules and financial regulations, there are some tricky issues your employees need to know about. One is retirement “back pay.”

When employees sign up for Social Security at least six months beyond the full retirement age, they’ll receive six months of retirement benefit back pay. This is problematic if your employees contributed to their HSAs over the previous six months — they are liable for tax penalties on HSAs. Create an education strategy that includes this information for employees looking to retire, so that they can stop contributing to their HSA six months before retirement and avoid costly mistakes.

Help employees understand how all their benefits work together. Your employees have contributed their knowledge and skills to you; it’s important to help them understand their options as they work toward retirement. For those just a few years out from retirement, your education plan may include helping employees understand eligibility requirements for both Social Security and Medicare, as well as any penalties that might arise from applying late to Medicare.

As your employees age, they are also eligible to contribute “catch-up” funds to HSAs, IRAs and 401(k)s in preparation for retirement. Your 401(k) partners and financial wellness resources can help employees assess their financial situations and prepare for retirement. For example, it’s a good idea to encourage employees who may have multiple 401(k) plans to consolidate them into one — this will make it easier to manage when they retire. They may ultimately roll these into an IRA to access additional investment options.

Maintain a focus on wellness. If you have a wellness program in place, take measures to boost participation and steer employees, especially older participants, toward healthy habits to help them live well and be productive leading up to retirement.

Wellness may extend outside of physical, emotional and mental wellness to professional development. Help them improve their retirement outlook by keeping job skills up to date so they are better prepared if they need to take on other employment to supplement their retirement.

For anyone nearing retirement age it’s a good idea to become acquainted with “Medicare and You,” the government’s official Medicare handbook. While each employee’s situation will differ, there’s no doubt that planning and education are key to a successful retirement strategy and, as an employer, you can support these efforts.

SOURCE: Metzger, L (14 August 2018) "Retirement ABCs: How employers can help baby boomers prepare" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/how-to-best-educate-baby-boomer-workers-on-retirement


15 employee benefits on the rise

Retirement plans and employer-sponsored health insurance are two vital employee benefits, but there are numerous others that are on the rise. Continue reading to learn more.


Employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement plans are always a vital part of the employee benefits conversation. But a number of other benefits — think wellness and perks that promote work-life balance — are becoming table stakes as employers look to attract and retain talent in a tightened labor market. Here are 15 of the employee benefits that are on the rise, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s recently released annual benefits survey.

Health savings accounts

Health savings accounts continue to rise in popularity. The number of employers offering HSAs — which offer triple tax benefits for employees — rose just one percentage point from 2017 to 2018 (from 55% to 56%), but has increased by 11% in the last five years.

Paid parental leave

The availability of paid parental leave increased significantly between 2016 and 2018 for every type of parental leave, according to SHRM. Paid maternity leave increased from 26% in 2016 to 35% in 2018, and paid paternity increased from 21% to 29%. Meanwhile, adoption (20% to 28%), foster child (13% to 21%) and surrogacy (6% to 12%) leave also increased in the last two years.

A number of large employers have added or enhanced paid parental leave programs in the last year. Dollar GeneralTD Bank and Unum are among the companies that added parental leave benefits for employees, while IBMTIAA and Walmart are among those that expanded their programs.

Company-organized fitness competitions/challenges

The last year has seen a substantial uptick in employers targeting employee wellness through company-organized fitness competitions and challenges. The percentage of employers offering the perk increased from 28% in 2017 to 38% in 2018.

Standing desks

Standing desks are one of the fastest-growing employee benefits: The percentage of employers offering standing desks to workers increased from 20% in 2014 to 53% in 2018. In the last year alone, the benefit increased 8 percentage points.

Research indicates long hours of sitting are linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, so employers are looking for benefits to help combat the problem.

Critical illness insurance

One in four employers now offer critical illness insurance to their employees, according to SHRM. That’s an 8% increase from 2017 and a 10% increase from 2014. As healthcare costs continue to mount for both employers and employees, voluntary benefits offer workers some additional protections for financial emergencies at a low cost, benefit experts say.

Telecommuting

Flexible working benefits, such as telecommuting, flextime and compressed workweeks, encourage work-life balance and can result in higher productivity and more engaged employees, SHRM reports. That’s likely the reason that more than two-thirds (70%) of organizations offer some type of telecommuting, either on a full-time, part-time or ad-hoc basis, up from 62% last year and 59% in 2014.

CPR/first aid training

A growing number of employers are getting serious about safety: The prevalence of CPR/first aid training increased 7 percentage points (47% to 54%) in the past year.

Acupressure/acupuncture medical coverage

Nearly half of employers (47%) now provide acupressure/acupuncture medical coverage, according to SHRM. The benefit experienced significant growth over just the last year: 38% of employers offered the coverage in 2017.

Onsite stress management programs

A growing number of employees report they are stressed out — and the effects are showing at work. So employers are increasingly taking action. The number of employers offering workplace stress management programs is on the rise, with 12% of companies offering these programs. That’s up from 7% last year, and just 3% in 2014.

Lactation rooms

More employers are offering benefits that help new mothers adjust to getting back to work after having a baby. Nearly half (49%) of organizations now offer onsite lactation rooms, according to SHRM, up seven percentage points since 2017 and almost doubling since 2014 (28%).

Casual dress benefits

Dressing down is going up: More employers are embracing casual dress benefits, according to SHRM statistics. The most common practice is to allow employees to “dress down” one day per week, up six percentage points since 2014 (to 62%) and three percentage points since 2017. Half of employers say they allow casual dress every day, up six percentage points since 2017 and 18 percentage points since 2014. And about one-third (34%) of organizations offer the perk on a seasonal basis, up seven percentage points since 2017 and 15 percentage points since 2014.

Service anniversary awards

The percentage of employers offering service anniversary awards, the most common type of compensation benefit, rose by nine percentage points — to 63% — since 2017, SHRM reports.

Spot bonuses

Nearly half (48%) of employers told SHRM they offer employees spot bonuses/awards. That’s a 3% increase from 2017 and a 7% increase since 2014. A number of employers, including Comerica BankHostessLowe’s and McCormick, have announced bonuses for employees in the last six months as a result of financial savings from the GOP tax law.

Life insurance

Company-paid group life insurance is offered by 85% of organizations, and 80% of organizations offer supplemental life insurance for employees, a four-percentage-point increase from 2017, SHRM reports. A substantial increase was seen for life insurance for dependents with more than two-thirds of organizations (70%) offering this benefit in 2018, an increase of 13 percentage points since 2017 and 16 percentage points since 2014.

Paid time off to volunteer

An increasing number of employees are interested in volunteer opportunities — and employers are listening. SHRM reports that 24% of employers now offer employees paid time off to volunteer, up from 22% in 2017 and 16% in 2014.
SOURCE: Mayer, K (6 August 2018) "15 employee benefits on the rise" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/slideshow/telecommuting-life-insurance-trending-employee-benefits

How employers can manage the skyrocketing cost of specialty drugs

Since the 90's, the number of specialty medications, not to mention their costs, has grown exponentially. Continue reading to learn what employers can do to manage these costs.


In the past two decades, the number of specialty medications — which treat rare and complex diseases such as multiple sclerosis, pulmonary arterial hypertension, hepatitis C, HIV, cystic fibrosis, some types of cancer and hemophilia — has grown exponentially. In 1990, there were only 10 specialty drugs on the market. By 2015, that number had increased to 300 medications, and by the end of 2016 there were approximately 700 more specialty drugs in development.

These medications are usually very high cost, with some new biologic medications costing more than $750,000 a year. Why are the costs so high? There are a number of factors, including the facts that distribution networks are limited, these medications are complicated to develop and distribute, and there are few, if any, generic alternatives for these drugs.

See also: A Look at Drug Spending in the U.S.

The Pew Charitable Trusts found that although only 1% to 2% of Americans use specialty medications, they account for approximately 38% of total drug spending in the U.S.

So, how can employers better gain control over the cost of specialty medications? Because there are hundreds of specialty medications, there’s no single strategy for cost management that can be applied universally. To build an effective cost management strategy, employers need to first analyze employee use of specialty medications. The best strategy will approach specialty medication management by disease class and drug by drug.

However, there are key building blocks of a strategy that will both manage costs and ensure that employees have access to the medications they need. Here are six things employers can do.

Assess benefit plan design structure. Employers should consider how they are incenting employees to spend their benefit dollars appropriately and wisely. A multi-tiered medication formulary where employees pay less out of pocket for generic drugs and lower cost medications and more for costly medications is one approach that’s proven effective. To help employees afford these higher out-of-pocket costs, employers can promote manufacturer copay savings programs, which many drug makers offer.

Think about utilization management. This can include requiring prior authorization for high-cost specialty medications and step therapies (employees must start with lower cost therapies and can move up to more costly ones if those are not effective).

Consider a custom pharmacy network design. By narrowing the network of pharmacies that fill specialty medication prescriptions, employers can negotiate a better unit price. A freestanding specialty pharmacy or a pharmacy benefits manager can provide savings by optimizing discounts for both employers and employees.

Offer second opinion and other support services for rare and complex diseases. A newly diagnosed rare or complex disease patient will see, on average, seven different specialists over the course of eight years before getting a true diagnosis and appropriate treatment path. These programs aim to reduce that burden and ensure success with that treatment once it’s identified. A second opinion from a top specialist in the field provides an expert assessment of the diagnosis and recommendations on the most effective treatment protocol. This not only helps manage costs, it lowers the risk of misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment. Additional case management services can include one-to-one counseling and, when the drug regimen requires, in-home nursing services to help patients better manage their disease and improve outcomes.

See also: Specialty Drugs and Health Care Costs

Offer site of care choices. Where specialty drugs are administered can have a significant impact on what they cost. Medications administered in an outpatient clinic at a hospital can cost five times as much as those that are injected or infused in a physician’s office or at the patient’s home. Offering services such as home infusion or injection delivered by nurses or incenting patients with lower copays when they receive their medications at their physician’s office can lower overall specialty drug costs.

Educate employees. When an employee or covered family member is diagnosed with a rare or complex condition that will require a higher level of care and the use of specialty medications, employers can connect employees with case managers or similar services that provide education about the condition and the medication, such as how to manage side effects or what alternative medications are available, which can increase employee adherence with the medication regimen.

SOURCE: Varn, M (8 August 2018) "How employers can manage the skyrocketing cost of specialty drugs" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/specialty-pharmaceuticals-and-how-employers-can-manage-cost


Everything benefits managers need to know about Generation Z

Say hello to Generation Z. Yes, they have some similarities to Millennials, but they have they own thoughts and attitudes when it comes to work and benefits. Read this blog post to learn more.


Just when you thought you had finally figured out the millennial generation, there’s another young cohort of professionals entering the workforce. Sure, they’ve got some similarities to tech-focused millennials, but they have plenty of their own attitudes and opinions about money, relationships and, of course, work and benefits. Meet Generation Z.

Generation Z was raised in a post-9/11 world, following the dot-com boom and bust and during the midst of the Great Recession. There’s no doubt that these world events have colored the way they think and the way they work. Generation Z is a large cohort of about 72.8 million people and about 25% of the population. It’s a generation that employers will need to understand to create meaningful relationships. Here’s what you need to know.

They’re true digital natives. Generation Z was born between the 1995 and 2010, which makes them the first truly digital native generation. By the time they were heading off to Kindergarten, the internet had reached mainstream popularity and Mark Zuckerberg had already launched Facebook across college campuses.

Like many of us, Generation Z is rarely without their phones. But unlike your older colleagues, Generation Z may be more connected than ever — documenting their days on Instagram Stories and Snapchat, and messaging friends by text and other messaging platforms.

However, they’re also a relatively private bunch. Rather than broadcasting their lives on Facebook (like their parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents), they favor networks that allow for privacy. Snapchat snaps disappear, as do Instagram Stories. Gen Z also gravitates toward apps like Whisper, an anonymous social network for sharing secrets.

Here’s the takeaway for HR pros: Rather than seeing this as a barrier to communication, look at it as an opportunity. Try using text message reminders for open enrollment deadlines or creating a Slack channel for benefits communication, in addition to email and paper updates.

They’re seeking financial security. Generation Z grew up during the Great Recession, during which they may have seen their parents lose their jobs or deal with serious financial hardships. Because of this, Generation Z is focused on financial stability.

Unfortunately, many Gen Zers may join your company drowning in student loan debt from college. Consider offering benefits that help them get out of debt and begin saving for the future. Student loan debt repayment benefits with platforms like SoFi or Gradifi provide appealing avenues to pay off debt faster. You can also promote tax-deferred savings programs such as a 401(k) or health savings accounts to minimize their tax liability and maximize savings opportunities. These benefits may also appeal to millennials struggling with student loan debt and the prospect of saving for retirement — all while they start families.

Financial wellness benefits are attractive to all of your employees — Gen Z included. Consider partnering with local banks or credit unions to provide other savings options and financial education. Make this education appealing to everyone by providing it in different formats — in-person for anyone to attend, as well as on-demand webinars or Skype meetings for those who appreciate a more interactive experience.

Gen Z wants to actively participate. Generation Z is the most connected generation yet; they’re used to Googling an answer before you can finish your question or chatting with their friends throughout each day.

This hyper-connectedness lends itself to more interactive workplace meetings. Keep your Gen Z employees engaged and garner feedback by incorporating polls into your meetings, or creating recordings and presenting to computers and smartphones using a platform like ZeetingsPresentain or Mentimeter.

Whereas millennials were known for their interest in collaborating with each other, Gen Z wants to own their work a little bit more and compete against colleagues. Use this to your advantage to introduce gamification into your programs. Platforms such as Kahoot cannot only help you create some fun competition, but it can improve information retention.

They have a surprising communication preference. We’ve established that Generation Z is a hyper-connected cohort. But research uncovered one surprise about this generation’s preference for feedback: they prefer to be in-person. Use this knowledge to mentor your managers who will deliver feedback, and use it to make your benefits more appealing, too. For example, a confidential advocacy program with phone, email and chat options can be a great source for Gen Zers who want more information on their benefits.

While not everyone in this age group will conform to these attitudes and feelings, it can be helpful to pull back the curtain and understand how this generation could be different from millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers.


Lack Of Insurance Exposes Blind Spots In Vision Care

Vision problems are typically not life threatening but can impact the success of your everyday life. Vision care is a significant benefit that could change the lives of many families.


Every day, a school bus drops off as many as 45 children at a community eye clinic on Chicago’s South Side. Many of them are referred to the clinic after failing vision screenings at their public schools.

Clinicians and students from the Illinois College of Optometry give the children comprehensive eye exams, which feature refraction tests to determine a correct prescription for eyeglasses and dilation of their pupils to examine their eyes, including the optic nerve and retina.

No family pays out-of-pocket for the exam. The program bills insurance if the children have coverage, but about a third are uninsured. Operated in partnership with Chicago public schools, the program annually serves up to 7,000 children from birth through high school.

“Many of the kids we’re serving fall through the cracks,” said Dr. Sandra Block, a professor of optometry at the Illinois College of Optometry and medical director of the school-based vision clinics program. Many are low-income Hispanic and African-American children whose parents may not speak English or are immigrants who are not in the country legally.

Falling through the cracks is not an uncommon problem when it comes to vision care. According to a 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, as many as 16 million people in the United States have undiagnosed or uncorrected “refractive” errors that could be fixed with eyeglasses, contact lenses or surgery. And while insurance coverage for eye exams and corrective lenses clearly has improved, significant gaps remain.

The national academies’ report noted that impaired vision affects how people experience their world, including normal communication and social activities, independence and mobility. Not seeing clearly can hamper children’s academic achievement, social development and long-term health.

But when people must choose, vision care may lose out to more pressing medical concerns, said Block, who was on the committee that developed the report.

“Vision issues are not life-threatening,” she said. “People get through their day knowing they can’t see as well as they’d like.”

Insurance can make regular eye exams, glasses and treatment for medical problems such as cataracts more accessible and affordable. But comprehensive vision coverage is often achieved only through a patchwork of plans.

The Medicare program that provides coverage for millions of Americans age 65 and older doesn’t include routine eye exams, refraction testing or eyeglasses. Some tests are covered if you’re at high risk for a condition such as glaucoma, for example. And if you develop a vision-related medical condition such as cataracts, the program will cover your medical care.

But if you’re just a normal 70-year-old and you want to get your eyes examined, the program won’t cover it, said Dr. David Glasser, an ophthalmologist in Columbia, Md., who is a clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. If you make an appointment because you’re experiencing troubling symptoms and get measured for eyeglasses while there, you’ll likely be charged anywhere from about $30 to $75, Glasser said.

There are a few exceptions. Medicare will pay for one pair of glasses or contact lenses following cataract surgery, for example. Some Medicare Advantage plans offer vision care.

Many commercial health insurance plans also exclude routine vision care from their coverage. Employers may offer workers a separate vision plan to fill in the gaps.

VSP Vision Care provides vision care plans to 60,000 employers and other clients, said Kate Renwick-Espinosa, the organization’s president. A typical plan provides coverage for a comprehensive eye exam once a year and an allowance toward standard eyeglasses or contact lenses, sometimes with a copayment. Also, individuals seeking plans make up a growing part of their business, she said.

Vision coverage for kids improved under the Affordable Care Act. The law requires most plans sold on the individual and small-group market to offer vision benefits for children younger than 19. That generally means that those plans cover a comprehensive eye exam, including refraction, every year, as well as a pair of glasses or contact lenses.

But since pediatric eye exams aren’t considered preventive care that must be covered without charging people anything out-of-pocket under the ACA, they’re subject to copays and the deductible.

Medicaid programs for low-income people also typically cover vision benefits for children and sometimes for adults as well, said Dr. Christopher Quinn, president of the American Optometric Association, a professional group.

But coverage alone isn’t enough. To bring down the number of people with undiagnosed or uncorrected vision, education is key to helping people understand the importance of eye health in maintaining good vision. Just as important, it can also reduce the impact of chronic conditions such as diabetes, the national academies’ report found.

“All health care providers need to at least ask vision questions when providing primary care,” said Block.

SOURCE:
Andrews M (13 JUNE 2018). "Lack Of Insurance Exposes Blind Spots In Vision Care" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://khn.org/news/lack-of-insurance-exposes-blind-spots-in-vision-care/


Benefit change could raise costs for patients getting drug copay assistance

Health plans may change with time. Know what to expect and how to respond with these tips on how to avoid unexpected changes.


Since Kristen Catton started taking the drug Gilenya two years ago, she’s had only one minor relapse of her multiple sclerosis, following a bout of the flu.

She can walk comfortably, see clearly and work part time as a nurse case manager at a hospital near her home in Columbus, Ohio. This is a big step forward; two drugs she previously tried failed to control her physical symptoms or prevent repeated flare-ups.

This year, Catton, 48, got a shock. Her health insurance plan changed the way it handles the payments that the drugmaker Novartis makes to help cover her prescription’s cost. Her copayment is roughly $3,800 a month, but Novartis helps reduce that out-of-pocket expense with payments to the health plan. The prescription costs about $90,000 a year.

Those Novartis payments no longer counted toward her family plan’s $8,800 annual pharmacy deductible. That meant once she hit the drugmaker’s payment cap for the copay assistance in April, she would have to pay the entire copayment herself until her pharmacy deductible was met.

Catton is one of a growing number of consumers taking expensive drugs who are discovering they are no longer insulated by copay assistance programs that help cover their costs. Through such programs, consumers typically owe nothing or have modest monthly copayments for pricey drugs because many drug manufacturers pay a patient’s portion of the cost to the health plan, which chips away at the consumer’s deductible and out-of-pocket maximum limits until the health plan starts paying the whole tab.

Under new “copay accumulator” programs, that no longer happens.

In these programs, the monthly copayments drug companies make don’t count toward patients’ plan deductibles or out-of-pocket maximums. Once patients hit the annual limit on a drugmaker’s copay assistance program, they’re on the hook for their entire monthly copayment until they reach their plan deductible and spending limits.

Catton put the $3,800 May copayment on a credit card. She knows her insurer will start paying the entire tab once she hits the pharmacy deductible. But, she said, she can’t afford to pay nearly $9,000 a year out-of-pocket for the foreseeable future.

“I’m talking to my doctor to see if I can I take it every other day,” she said. “I guess I’m winging it until I can figure out what to do.”

Drug copay assistance programs have long been controversial.

Proponents say that in an age of increasingly high deductibles and coinsurance charges, such help is the only way some patients can afford crucial medications.

But opponents say the programs increase drug spending on expensive brand-name drugs by discouraging people from using more cost-effective alternatives.

Switching to a cheaper drug may not be an option, said Bari Talente, executive vice president for advocacy at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“Generally the multiple sclerosis drugs are not substitutable,” she said. “Most have different mechanisms of action, different administration and different side effect profiles.” Generics, when they’re available, are pricey too, typically costing $60,000 or more annually, she said.

Most MS drug annual copay assistance limits, if they have them, are between $9,000 and $12,000, Talente said.

Employers argue that the drug copayment programs are an attempt to circumvent their efforts to manage health care costs. For example, employers may try to discourage the use of a specialty drug when there’s a lower-cost drug available by requiring higher patient cost sharing.

There’s also the issue of fairness.

“From an employer perspective, everyone under the plan has to be treated the same,” said Brian Marcotte, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), which represents large employers.

If someone needs medical care such as surgery, for example, that person doesn’t get help covering his deductible, while the person with the expensive drug might, he said.

According to an NBGH survey of about 140 multistate employers with at least 5,000 workers, 17 percent reported they have a copay accumulator program in place this year, Marcotte said. Fifty-six percent reported they’re considering them for 2019 or 2020.

If there is no comparable drug available, drug copayment programs may have a role to play if they can be structured so that participating patients are paying some amount toward their deductible, Marcotte said. But, he said, assistance programs for drugs that are available from more than source, such as a brand drug that is also available as a generic, shouldn’t be allowed.

In 2016, 20 percent of prescriptions for brand-name drugs used a drug copay assistance coupon, according to an analysis by researchers at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics. Among the top 200 drugs based on spending in 2014, the study found that 132 were brand-name drugs, and 90 of them offered copay coupons. Fifty-one percent of the drugs with copay coupons had no substitute at all or only another brand drug as a close therapeutic substitute, the analysis found.

Advocates for people with HIV and AIDS say copay accumulators are cropping up in their patients’ plans and beginning to cause patients trouble. Drugs to treat HIV typically don’t have generic alternatives.

The biggest impact for the community their organizations serve may be for PrEP, a daily pill that helps prevent HIV infection, said Carl Schmid, deputy executive director at the AIDS Institute, an advocacy group. A 30-day supply of PrEP (brand-name Truvada) can cost nearly $2,000. Drug manufacturer Gilead offers a copay assistance program that covers up to $3,600 annually in copay assistance, with no limit on how much is paid per month.

“They’re at risk for HIV, they know it and want to protect themselves,” Schmid said. “It’s a public health issue.”

Earlier this month, the AIDS Institute was among 60 HIV organizations that sent letters to state attorneys general and insurance commissioners across the country asking them to investigate this practice, which has emerged in employer and marketplace plans this year.

Compounding advocates’ concerns is the fact that these coverage changes are frequently not communicated clearly to patients, Schmid said. They are typically buried deep in the plan documents and don’t appear in the user-friendly summary of benefits and coverage that consumers receive from their health plan.

“How is a patient to know?” Schmid asks. They learn of the change only when they get a big bill midway through the year. “And then they’re stuck.”

SOURCE:
Andrews M (25 MAY 2018). [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://khn.org/news/benefit-change-could-raise-costs-for-patients-getting-drug-copay-assistance/


Notifying Participants of a Plan Change

Curious about when you should notify a participant about a change to their health care plan?

The answer is that it depends!

Notification must happen within one of three time frames: 60 days prior to the change, no later than 60 days after the change, or within 210 days after the end of the plan year.

For modifications to the summary plan description (SPD) that constitute a material reduction in covered services or benefits, notice is required within 60 days prior to or after the adoption of the material reduction in group health plan services or benefits. (For example, a decrease in employer contribution is a material reduction in covered services or benefits. So is a material modification in any plan terms affecting the content of the most recent summary of benefits and coverage (SBC).) While the rule here is flexible, the definite best practice is to give advance notice. For collective practical purposes, employees should be told prior to the first increased withholding.

However, if the change is part of open enrollment, and communicated during open enrollment, this is considered acceptable notice regardless of whether the SBC, SPD, or both are changing. Essentially, open enrollment is a safe harbor for all 60-day prior/60-day post notice requirements.

Finally, changes that do not affect the SBC and are not a material reduction in benefits must be communicated and summarized within 210 days after the end of the plan year.

Source:
Capilla D. (19 April 2018). "Notifying Participants of a Plan Change" [blog post]. Retrieved from address http://bit.ly/2w1wvHk