Assure Elite: Small Employers' New Favorite Healthcare Program

Employers of multi-generational employees often fret about the delicate and difficult balance of offering health coverage. The typical generalization is that younger employees tend to cost less to insure, while older employees cost more. The truth is, not every young employee is going to require less health coverage because they are presumed to be young and healthy. Likewise, not all older employees are going to cost an arm and a leg to insure. With each employer comes unique employees, and therefore, there is a need to have options to benefit and reward small employers and their employees alike – enter the Assure Elite program. In this installment of CenterStage, Tonya Bahr, a Benefits Advisor at Hierl Insurance, has highlighted the game-changing aspects of this unique healthcare program.

What Exactly is Assure Elite?

Assure Elite is a small employer focused healthcare program aimed at offering the best options for small employers who want to take control of their healthcare spending. “As a partnership between Hierl Insurance, Network Health and Agnesian Healthcare (SSM Health), employers can have peace of mind knowing their healthcare options are backed by three local companies who know healthcare expenses are out of hand in our community,” explained Tonya. Through this partnership, Hierl creates unique plan designs with deep discounts reflected in the premium costs, placing money back in the pockets of employers and employees. 

What sets Assure Elite apart is actualization, not generalization. Among other issues facing the modern healthcare scene, age of employees plays a large factor in coverage pricing. The tendency is to believe older employees will cost an employer more to insure due to a greater prone to injury, sickness and other ailments. On the other hand, younger employees are in better shape and theoretically removed from any costly health issues.

However, not always is this the case. By working with a partnership established around the goal of providing the most cost-effective and honest coverage for small employers, Assure Elite bases pricing on the overall health of the employee. Taking age out of the equation and replacing it with health ensures the proper coverage is received.

How Does the Program Work?

Assure Elite is a level-funded program, meaning premium is based on actual healthcare utilization rather than age. Healthier overall groups will pay less than a group who is unhealthy (or high users of healthcare). Being a level funded program, Assure Elite is a hybrid between a traditional, fully-insured medical plan and a partially self-funded plan. With a fully-insured plan, employers are paying a fixed monthly premium for coverage, meaning the amount only fluctuates when the number of employees on the plan changes. Often, employers are unaware they are overpaying in premium due to claims paid out by the insurance carrier are less than the premium paid in by the employer. With a partially self-funded plan, an employer still faces fixed costs, (much lower than a fully-insured plan), but also pays for medical claims as the employees incur expenses. Therefore, groups don’t overpay like they do on fully-insured plans because the cost of the claim is what the group’s actual expense is. Cash flow fluctuation can arise from this, and many smaller employers do not prefer this risk. A level funded plan like Assure Elite offers the best of both worlds: providing the fixed monthly premium costs of a fully-insured plan, but at the end of the year, offering the employer 50% of the balance back if the amount paid in is less than the amount paid out by the carrier. Many different options are available to choose from; both EPO and POS, as well as traditional and HDHPs. Employers can dual choice up to 4 plan options. Adherence generic prescriptions are $0 copay and office visits are only $10. Low cost, convenient virtual visits are available, as well. All plan options come with a wellness component offered through Agnesian’s Know & Go program, which includes health risk assessment questionnaires, biometric screenings, coaching, and an employee portal with educational materials, food and exercise trackers, online workshops, a blog, a mobile site and more – all at no additional charge.

How Do I Go About Getting a Quote?

The application process is completely pain-free. Base rates for Assure Elite are released after a current census statement, billing statement and wage and tax statement are received. Employers wishing to move forward with the process would go through medical underwriting to obtain final rates. This includes the completion of a three-page application covering basic demographic information and a brief medical questionnaire. Some groups choose to go through underwriting immediately rather than receiving base rates first, but each decision is unique to each employer. Despite remaining largely competitive for groups having 2 to 49 employees, discounts are still acquirable for group sizes up to 100.

To begin your journey toward optimal employee healthcare coverage, speak with Tonya at Hierl Insurance, Inc. With a passion for educating employees who may not understand their insurance, misuse their coverage and spend more than they need, Tonya is ready to assist in discovering cost-effective care without any missteps. You can reach her at 920.921.5921 or at tbahr@hierl.com.


COBRA liability in mergers and acquisitions

COBRA requires certain group plans to make health plan coverage available to certain individuals after a business reorganization. Continue reading to learn more.


The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) requires certain group health plans to make continuation coverage available to certain individuals who would otherwise lose group health plan coverage due to a qualifying event. Employers who go through business reorganizations, such as mergers and acquisitions (M&A), will need to know whether COBRA continuation coverage must be offered and whether the group health plan of the seller or buyer must provide COBRA continuation coverage.

General Rules

Under IRS regulations, if the seller and buyer negotiated their COBRA liability by contract as part of the sale, then the contract will determine who has an obligation to offer COBRA coverage.

See also: Get the Facts on COBRA Coverage – Who, When and How Long?

If the employer who is contractually responsible for providing COBRA coverage fails to perform or if the contract is silent on COBRA coverage obligations, then the seller's group health plan has the duty to offer COBRA coverage as long as the seller maintains a group health plan post-sale.

If the seller doesn't maintain a group health plan post-sale, then the answer depends on whether it's a stock sale or an asset sale.

In a stock sale, if the seller doesn't maintain a group health plan post-sale, then the buyer is responsible for offering COBRA coverage.

See also: What Is COBRA, and Does It Apply to My Business?

In an asset sale, if the seller doesn't maintain a group health plan post-sale and the group health plan's termination is connected with the asset sale, then the buyer is responsible for offering COBRA coverage if the buyer continues business operations associated with the assets purchased without interruption or substantial change.

For more information request our Compliance Advisor “COBRA Liability in Mergers and Acquisitions.”

SOURCE: Hsu, K (9 August 2018) "Cobra liability in mergers and acquisitions" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from http://blog.ubabenefits.com/cobra-liability-in-mergers-and-acquisitions


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


HSA How-To

Health Savings Accounts can be tricky, employees have the control, employers and insurance companies are there to guide them in the right direction. Here is a how to helping guide to assist your customers to the right HSA plan.


If an employer wants to offer employees pretax payroll deferrals to their health savings accounts, the employer needs to first create a Section 125 plan or cafeteria plan that allows HSA deferrals.

A cafeteria plan is the only way for employers to offer employees a choice between taxable and nontaxable benefits, “without the choice causing the benefits to become taxable,” the IRS says. “A plan offering only a choice between taxable benefits is not a Section 125 plan.”

Here are five things to know about HSAs and Section 125 plans.

1. A Section 125 plan is just one of several ways for employers to help employees with funding their HSAs.

Employers offering HDHPs face the choice of whether and how to help their employees with the funding of the employees’ HSAs. The options include the following:

  • Option 1 – Employee after-tax contributions.Employers are not required to help with the employees’ HSAs and may choose not to. In this case, employees may open HSAs on their own and receive the tax deduction on their personal income tax return. This option allows for income tax savings, but not payroll taxes. A variation on this option is for employers to allow for post-tax payroll deferral (basically, direct deposit of payroll funds into an HSA without treating the deposit any differently than other payroll which may also be directly deposited into an employee’s personal checking account).This does not change the tax or legal situation, but it does provide convenience for employees and will likely increase HSA participation and satisfaction.
  • Option 2 – Employee pretax payroll deferral.Employers can help employees fund their HSAs by allowing for HSA contributions via payroll deferral. This is inexpensive and can be accomplished by adding a Section 125 cafeteria plan with HSA deferrals as an option. Employers benefit by not having to pay payroll taxes on the employees’ HSA contributions. Employees save payroll taxes as well. Plus, HSA contributions are not counted as income for federal, and in most cases, state income taxes. Setting up automatic payments generally simplifies and improves employee savings.
  • Option 3 – Employer-funded contributions.Employers may make contributions to their employees’ HSAs without a Section 125 plan if the contributions are made directly. The contributions must be “comparable,” basically made fairly (with a lot of rules to follow). This type of contribution is tax deductible by the employer and not taxable to the employee (not subject to payroll taxes or federal income taxes and in most cases, not subject to state income taxes either).
  • Option 4 – Employer and employee pretax funding.Employers can combine options 2 and 3, where the employer makes a contribution to the employees’ HSAs and the employer allows employees to participate in a Section 125 plan and enabling them to defer a portion of their pay pretax into an HSA. This is a preferred approach for a successful HDHP and HSA program, as it ensures that employees get some money into their HSA through the employer contribution and allows for the best tax treatment to allow for employees to contribute more on their own through payroll deferral.
  • Options for more tax savings.Some employers go beyond these options to increase tax savings even more. Although a number of strategies exist to increase tax savings, using a limited-purpose FSA (or HRA) is a common one. Generally, FSAs are not allowed with HSAs; however, an exception exists for limited-purpose FSAs. Limited-purpose FSAs are FSAs limited to payments for preventive care, vision and dental care. This provides more tax savings and employees use the FSA to pay for the limited-purpose expenses (dental and vision) and save the HSA for other qualified medical expenses.

HRAs can also be used creatively in connection with HSA programs. The HRA cannot be a general account for reimbursement of qualified medical expenses, but careful planning can allow for a limited-purpose HRA, a postdeductible HRA, or other special types of HRAs.

2. There are several benefits for an employer using a Section 125 plan combined with an HSA.

  • Employees can make HSA contributions through payroll deferral on a pretax basis.
  • Employees may pay for their share of insurance premiums on a pretax basis.
  • Employers and employees save payroll taxes (7.65 percent each on FICA and FUTA for contributions).
  • Employers avoid the “comparability” rules for HSA contributions although employers are subject to the Section 125 plan rules.

3. The employer is responsible for administering the Section 125 plan.

For payroll deferral into an HSA through a Section 125 plan, the employer must reduce the employees’ pay by the amount of the deferral and contribute that money directly into the employees’ HSA.

The employer may do this administration itself or it may use a payroll service or another type of third-party administrator. In any case, the cost of the Section 125 plan itself and the ongoing administration are generally small and offset, if not entirely eliminated, by employer savings through reduced payroll taxes.

Another administrative element is the collection of Section 125/HSA payroll deferral election forms from employees. Employers that have offered Section 125 plans prior to introducing an HSA program are familiar with this process.

Unlike other Section 125 plan deferral elections, which only allow annual changes, the law allows for changes to the HSA deferral election as frequently as monthly.

Although frequent changes to the elections create a small administrative burden on the employer, the benefit to employees is significant. Employers are not required to offer changes more frequently than annually.

The full extent of the administrative rules for Section 125 plans is beyond the scope of this discussion.

4. Contributions to HSAs under Section 125 plans are subject to nondiscrimination rules.

A cafeteria plan must meet nondiscrimination rules. The rules are designed to ensure that the plan is not discriminatory in favor of highly compensated or key employees.

For example, contributions under a cafeteria plan to employee HSAs cannot be greater for higher-paid employees than they are for lower-paid employees. Contributions that favor lower-paid employees are not prohibited.

The cafeteria plan must not: (1) discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees as to the ability to participate (eligibility test), (2) discriminate in favor of HCEs as to contributions or benefits paid (contributions and benefits test), and (3) discriminate in favor of HCEs as measured through a concentration test that looks at the contributions made by key employees (key employee concentration test). Violations generally do not result in plan disqualification, but instead may cause the value of the benefit to become taxable for the highly compensated employees or key employees.

The nondiscrimination rules predate the creation of HSAs and how the rules apply to HSA contributions is an area where additional government guidance would be welcome.

5. An employer needs a Section 125 plan to allow for HSA contributions through payroll deferral.

Can an employer allow for HSA contributions through payroll deferral without a Section 125 plan? No, not if the goal is to save payroll taxes. Employers can offer HSA payroll deferral on an after-tax basis without concern over the comparability rules or the Section 125 plan rules. Amounts contributed under this method are treated as income to the employee and are deductible on the employee’s personal income tax return. The lack of any special tax treatment for this approach makes it unattractive for most employers and with just a small additional investment of money and time, a Section 125 plan could be added allowing for pretax deferrals.

Here is an example: Waving Flags, Inc. does not offer health insurance or a Section 125 plan to its employees. Waving Flags does provide direct deposit services to its employees that provide it with their personal checking account number and bank routing number. Maggie, an employee of Waving Flags, Inc., approaches the human resources person and asks to have her direct deposit split into two payment streams with $100 per month being directly deposited to her HSA and the balance of her pay being deposited into her personal checking account. She provides Waving Flags the appropriate account and routing numbers and signs the proper election forms.

Waving Flags is not subject to the Section 125 nondiscrimination rules for pretax payroll deferral, nor is Waving Flags subject to the HSA comparability rules. Waving Flags is simply paying Maggie by making a direct deposit into her HSA. The $1,200 Maggie elects to have directly deposited to her HSA in this manner will be reflected in Box 1 of her IRS Form W-2 from Waving Flags as ordinary income. She will be subject to payroll taxes on the amount. She can claim an HSA deduction on line 25 of her IRS Form 1040 when she files her tax return.

Maggie benefits from this approach by setting up an automatic contribution to her HSA, which often improves the commitment to savings. Most HSA custodians will offer a similar system that HSA owners can set up on their own by having their HSA custodian automatically draw a certain amount from a personal checking account at periodic intervals. Employer involvement is not necessary. Individuals with online banking tools available to them may be able to set it from their personal checking account as well to push money periodically to an HSA.

SOURCE:
Westerman, P (2 July 2018) "HSA How-To" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/01/01/hsa-how-to/


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/


Bettering Health Plan Management Through Modern Healthcare Technology

Taking advantage of modern technology is part of the reason why Hierl excels in providing the best results for our clients. In this installment of CenterStage, we asked our Executive Vice President, Scott Smeaton, to give an in-depth overview of how we use our technological resources to create customized, high-quality, low-cost health plans for our clients.

Technology and Data

There are three steps to developing plans for our clients, when using technology and data. The first step is to identify the client’s cost drivers within their health program(s). For example, we may look at a client’s claims data and find their highest dollar claims are musculoskeletal – such as hip and knee replacements – identifying whether health plan members are going to the higher cost, lower quality provider. These are becoming much more prevalent and are among most plans top cost drivers. With the technology at Hierl, we can import our client’s data – medical and prescription claims and health screening results from wellness – and aggregate it into one technology platform. Doing so, will help keep our clients’ members updated on physician requests and advice.

Competitive Advantage

The second step beyond identifying our client’s cost drivers is to implement management programs and plan designs to address their health plan issues. This kind of technology is newer to the healthcare industry. It can be a great resource and tool that larger employers can use to their advantage. Think about Netflix. They analyze their viewer’s behaviors and apply predictive modeling in a way that they know what their viewers like to watch and when they want to watch it, incorporating those preferences into the ads their customers see. That kind of technology is coming to healthcare, allowing us to look at all claims and behaviors and predict where the next large claim will come from. This helps plan administrators fully understand what’s driving their health plan costs and do something about it through plan design changes, provider relations and contracting, member incentives, and member education and engagement.

Employee Betterment

After identifying areas that can be improved upon and creating a plan to address these cost drivers as discussed above, our third and final step is to create a communication program that will engage and educate employees. Our goal is to help employees understand that, within a healthcare system, there are some providers who perform better than others and cost less. When we give employees the tools and resources they need to be better healthcare consumers, everyone wins. Employer sponsored health plans have lower overall costs. This means their employees and their families lower their out-of-pocket costs, save healthcare dollars for the future, and have better outcomes. Not to mention that a happier, healthier employee is also a more productive employee at work and in the community. Hierl accomplishes this with our “Why Matters” program, which is a custom designed, year-round member education and communication program using a variety of mediums to reach our clients’ members. Through Why Matters, Hierl builds a custom (intranet) and mobile app for our clients to access basic information about their benefits 24/7. Think of it as a homepage to one of your favorite websites that you bookmark in your browser. This is where your members go to research, make decisions, educate themselves on your benefit offerings and how to be a better healthcare consumer. Based on the cost drivers identified through the process above we build out a 12-month calendar of communication materials specifically addressing the areas we’ve identified as a concern and can be delivered via paper, email, mobile app, etc.

Hierl strives to bring our clients the best possible solutions that result in high-quality, low-cost benefits. If you think your company needs to take this step toward improvement, please contact Scott Smeaton at 920.921.5921 or send him an email at ssmeaton@hierl.com.


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


Eligibility, lack of plans keep millennials from retirement saving

As millennials reach the age to save for retirement, there is a clear lack-of-knowledge in the arena of what plans they need and how to save for them with the continuing costs of their lifestyles. In this article, we take a look at why this is.


Millennials are way behind on retirement savings, but it has nothing to do with self-indulgence or feasts on avocado toast.

Instead, what they actually need are retirement plans, and earlier eligibility to save in them.

A new report from the National Institute of Retirement Security highlights millennials’ precarious retirement futures with the news that only a third are saving for retirement. It’s not because they don’t want to, or are being extravagant, because when the numbers are crunched they actually save at rates equal to or higher than those of their elders—even if not as many of them can do so.

Millennials are getting a raw deal. Not only are traditional defined benefit plans disappearing, with the likelihood that a millennial might actually be able to participate in one, they’re worried that Social Security—which runs way behind the cost of living anyway—will be of even less help to them in the future as an income replacement than it already is for current retirees. Add to that the fact that more than half of millennials are expected to live to age 89 or even older, and they have the added worry of outliving whatever savings they might have managed to stash.

In fact, millennials need to save way more than their elders to stand a chance of having a retirement that honors the meaning of the word. Says the report, “[S]ome experts estimate that millennials will need to make pretax retirement plan contributions of between 15 percent to 22 percent of their pretax salary, which at 22 percent, is more than double the recommendation of previous generations.”

They’re viewed as irresponsible, but 21 percent are already worried about their retirement security, says the report, and while 51 percent of GenXers and boomers contribute to their own retirement plans, just 34.3 percent of millennials participate in an employer’s plan, although 66 percent work for bosses that offer such plans.

In fact, 66.2 percent of millennials have no retirement savings at all. Zip, zilch, zero. And millennial Latinos? A whopping 83 percent have a goose egg, not a nest egg. Latinos have it much worse, incidentally, than any other millennials group, with just 19.1 percent of millennial Latinos and 22.5 percent of Latinas participating in an employer-sponsored plan, compared with 41.4 percent of Asian men and 40.3 percent of millennial white women—who have the highest rates of participation in a retirement plan.

Despite working for an employer who provides workers with a retirement plan, millennials don’t always have a way to save, since said employer may have set barriers in place to prevent participation until an employee has been with the company for at least a year. And millennials are, of course, known as the job-hopping generation—so if they don’t stay in one place they never qualify. Close to half of millennials—40.2 percent—say they’re shut out of retirement plans because of employers’ eligibility requirements, including working a minimum number of hours or having a minimum tenure on the job.

But don’t accuse them of having no desire to participate: when they’re eligible, more than 90 percent do so.

Read the article.

Source:
Satter M. (2 March 2018). "Eligibility, lack of plans keep millennials from retirement saving" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/03/02/eligibility-lack-of-plans-keep-millennials-from-re/


Pay-to-shop health care incentives gaining traction

Laurie Cook went shopping recently for a mammogram near her home in New Hampshire. Using an online tool provided through her insurer, she plugged in her ZIP code. Up popped facilities in her network, each with an incentive amount she would be paid if she chose it.

Paid? To get a test? It’s part of a strategy to rein in health care spending by steering patients to the most cost-effective providers for non-emergency care.

State public employee insurance programs were among the early adopters of this approach. It is now finding a foothold among policymakers and in the private sector.

Scrolling through her options, Cook, a school nurse who is covered through New Hampshire’s state employee health plan, found that choosing a certain facility scored her a $50 check in the mail.

She then used the website again to shop for a series of lab tests. “For a while there, I was getting a $25 check every few weeks,” said Cook. The checks represented a share of the cost savings that resulted from her selections.

Lawmakers in nearby Maine took the idea further, recently enacting legislation that requires some private insurers to offer pay-to-shop incentives, part of a movement backed by a conservative foundation to get similar measures passed nationally.

Similar proposals are pending in a handful of other statehouses, including Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio.

“If insurance plans were serious about saving money, they would have been doing this stuff years ago,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a limited-government advocacy group based in Naples, Fla., that promotes such “right-to-shop” laws. “This starts to peel back the black box in health care and make the conversation about value.”

Still, some economists caution that shop-around initiatives alone cannot force the level of market-based change needed. While such shopping may make a difference for individual employers, they note it represents a tiny drop of the $3.3 trillion spent on health care in the U.S. each year.

“These are not crazy ideas,” said David Asch, professor of medicine, medical ethics and health policy at the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation in Philadelphia. But it’s hard to get consumers to change behavior — and curbing health care spending is an even bigger task. Shopping incentives, he warned, “might be less effective than you think.”

If they achieve nothing else, though, such efforts could help remove barriers to price transparency, said Francois de Brantes, vice president and director of the Center for Value in Health Care at Altarum, a nonprofit that studies the health economy.

“I think this could be quite the breakthrough,” he said.

Yet de Brantes predicts only modest savings if shopping simply results in narrowing the price variation between high- and low-cost providers: “Ideally, transparency is about stopping folks from continuously charging more.”

Among the programs in use, only a few show consumers the price differences among facilities. Many, like the one Cook used, merely display the financial incentives attached to each facility based on the underlying price.

 

Advocates say both approaches can work.

“When your plan members have ‘skin in the game,’ they have an incentive to consider the overall cost to the plan,” said Catherine Keane, deputy commissioner of administrative services in New Hampshire. She credits the incentives with leading to millions of dollars in savings each year.

Several states require insurers or medical providers to provide cost estimates upon patients’ requests, although studies have found that information can still be hard to access.

Now, private firms are marketing ways to make this information more available by incorporating it into incentive programs.

For example, Vitals, the New Hampshire-based company that runs the program Cook uses, and Healthcare Bluebook in Nashville offer employers — for a fee — comparative shopping gizmos that harness medical cost information from claims data. This information becomes the basis by which consumers shop around.

Crossing Network Lines

Maine’s law, adopted last year, requires insurers that sell coverage to small businesses to offer financial incentives — such as gift cards, discounts on deductibles or direct payments — to encourage patients, starting in 2019, to shop around.

A second and possibly more controversial provision also kicks in next year, requiring insurers, except HMOs, to allow patients to go out-of-network for care if they can find comparable services for less than the average price insurers pay in network.

Similar provisions are included in a West Virginia bill now under debate.

Touted by proponents as a way to promote health care choice, it nonetheless raises questions about how the out-of-network price would be calculated, what information would be publicly disclosed about how much insurers actually pay different hospitals, doctors or clinics for care and whether patients can find charges lower than in-network negotiated rates.

“Mathematically, that just doesn’t work” because out-of-network charges are likely to be far higher than negotiated in-network rates, said Joe Letnaunchyn, president and CEO of the West Virginia Hospital Association.

Not necessarily, counters the bill’s sponsor, Del. Eric Householder, who said he introduced the measure after speaking with the Foundation for Government Accountability. The Republican from the Martinsburg area said “the biggest thing lacking right now is health care choice because we’re limited to our in-network providers.”

Shopping for health care faces other challenges. For one thing, much of medical care is not “shoppable,” meaning it falls in the category of emergency services. But things such as blood tests, imaging exams, cancer screening tests and some drugs that are administered in doctor’s offices are fair game.

Less than half of the more than $500 billion spent on health care by people with job-based insurance falls into this category, according to a 2016 study by the Health Care Cost Institute, a nonprofit organization that analyzes payment data from four large national insurers. The report also noted there must be variation in price between providers in a region for these programs to make sense.

Increasingly, though, evidence is mounting that large price differences for medical care exist — even among rates negotiated by the same insurer.

“The price differences are so substantial it’s actually scary,” said Heyward Donigan, CEO of Vitals.

At the request of Kaiser Health News, Healthcare Bluebook ran some sample numbers for a Northern Virginia ZIP code, finding the cost of a colonoscopy ranged from $670 to $6,240, while a knee arthroscopy ranged from $1,959 to $20,241.

Another challenge is the belief by some consumers that higher prices mean higher quality, which studies don’t bear out.

Even with incentives, the programs face what may be their biggest challenge: simply getting people to use a shopping tool.

Kentucky state spokeswoman Jenny Goins said only 52 percent of eligible employees looked at the shopping site last year — and, of those, slightly more than half chose a less expensive option.

“That’s not as high as we would like,” she said.

Still, state workers in Kentucky have pocketed more than $1.6 million in incentives — and the state said it has saved $11 million — since the program began in mid-2013.

Deductibles, the annual amounts consumers must pay before their insurance kicks in and are usually $1,000 or more, are more effective than smaller shopping incentives, say some policy experts.

In New Hampshire, it took a combination of the two.

The state rolled out the payments for shopping around — and a website to look for best prices — in 2010. But participation didn’t really start to take off until 2014, when state employees began facing an annual deductible, said Deputy Commissioner Keane.

Still, the biggest question is whether these programs ultimately cause providers to lower prices.

Anecdotally, administrators think so.

Kentucky officials report they already are witnessing a market response because providers want patients to have an incentive to choose them.

“We do know providers are calling and asking, ‘How do I get my name on that list’ [of cost-effective providers]?” said Kentucky spokeswoman Goins. “The only way they can do that is to negotiate.”

Read the article.

Source:
Appleby J., Kaiser Health News (5 March 2018). "Pay-to-shop health care incentives gaining traction" [Web blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/03/05/pay-to-shop-health-care-incentives-gaining-tractio/