4 FAQs about 2019 Medicare rates

Medicare Part B premiums are expected to be held to roughly a 1.1 percent increase for most enrollees in 2019, according to Medicare managers. Continue reading for answers to the four most frequently asked questions about the 2019 Medicare rates.


Medicare managers announced last week that they will hold increases in Medicare Part B premiums to about 1.1 percent for most enrollees in 2019. For some high-income enrollees, however, premiums will rise 7.4 percent.

Medicare Part B is the component of the traditional Medicare program that covers physician services and hospital outpatient care.

Here’s a look at how the monthly Part B premiums will change, by annual income level:

  • Individuals earning less than $85,000, and couples earning less than $170,000:$135.50 in 2019, from $134 this year.
  • Individuals earnings $160,000 to $500,000, and couples earning $320,000 to $750,000: $433.40 in 2019, from $428.60 this year.
  • Individuals earning $500,000 or more, and couples earning $750,000 or more: $460.50 in 2019, from $428.60 this year.

The annual Medicare Part B deductible will increase by 1.1 percent, to $185.

Another component of the traditional Medicare program, Medicare Part A, covers inpatient hospital bills.

Medicare managers use payroll taxes to cover most of the cost of running the Medicare Part A program. Few Medicare Part A enrollees pay premiums for that coverage. But, for the enrollees who do have to pay premiums for Medicare Part A coverage, the full premium will increase 3.6 percent, to $437 per month.

The Medicare Part A deductible for inpatient hospital care will increase 1.8 percent, to $1,340.

Why are high earners paying so much more for Medicare Part B?

Congress has been increasing the share of Medicare costs that high earners pay in recent years.

For 2018, the top annual income category for Medicare Part B rate-setting purposes was for $160,000 and over for individuals, and for $320,000 and over for couples. Premiums from those Medicare Part B enrollees are supposed to cover 80 percent of their Part B claims.

In the Balanced Budget Act of 2018, Congress added a new annual income category: for individuals earning $500,000 or more and couples earning $750,000 or more. Premiums from Part B enrollees in that income category are supposed to cover 85 percent of those enrollees’ Part B claims.

Who do these rate increases actually affect?

Medicare now has about 60 million enrollees of all kinds, according to the CMS Medicare Enrollment Dashboard.

About 21 million are in Medicare Advantage plans and other plans with separate premium-setting processes.

About 38 million are in the traditional Medicare Part A, the Medicare Part B program, or both the Medicare Part A and the Medicare Part B programs. CMS refers to the traditional Medicare Part A-Medicare Part B program as Original Medicare. The rate increases have a direct effect on the Original Medicare enrollees’ costs.

How do the Medicare increases compare with the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA)?

The Social Security Administration recently announced that the 2019 Social Security COLA will be 2.8 percent.

That means the size of the COLA will be greater than the increase in Medicare premiums for all Medicare enrollees other than the highest-income Medicare Part B enrollees and the enrollees who pay the full cost of the Medicare Part A premiums.

Why should financial professionals care about Original Medicare premiums?

For consumers who already have traditional Medicare coverage, the Part A and Part B premiums may affect how much they have to spend on other insurance products and related products, such as Medicare supplement insurance coverage.

For retirement income planning clients, Medicare costs are something to factor into income needs calculations.

Because access to Medicare coverage is critical to all but the very wealthiest retirees, knowledge about how to get and keep eligibility for Medicare coverage on the most favorable possible terms is of keen interest to many consumers ages 50 and older. Some consumers may like to get information about that topic from their insurance agents, financial planners and other advisors.

Resources

Officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency that runs Medicare, are preparing to publish the official 2019 Medicare rate notices in the Federal Register on Wednesday. A preview copy of the Part A notice is available here, and a preview copy of the Part B notice is available here.

SOURCE: Bell, A. (16 October 2018) "4 FAQs about 2019 Medicare rates" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/10/16/medicare-posts-2019-rates-pinches-high-earners-412/


Are you ready for self-funding? Three tools to help you decide

Switching to a self-funded plan can seem like a daunting prospect to many HR directors, but there are also many significant benefits to switching. Read on for three tools to help you decide if you’re ready to switch.


When your health plan is fully insured, it’s easy for your finance department to budget for the cost — you just pass on the health insurer’s annual renewal premium amount to them and that becomes the annual budget number. But you and your broker may have come to suspect that you are leaving money on the table by continuing on a fully insured basis, and you may want to test the self-funded waters.

By now, you may already know there are significant benefits to self-funding, but actually making the switch is a scary prospect for HR directors.

Before you can transition to a self-funded plan, you need to be financially stable and willing to take a bit of a risk. As a safeguard, you also need to familiarize yourself with the two forms of stop-loss insurance. One caps the impact on any one covered member’s claims (individual or specific stop loss), and the other caps your total annual claim liability (aggregate stop loss). Your broker can guide you on which stop loss levels and which stop-loss coverage periods are right for your population when transitioning from fully insured to self-funding.

Beyond these stop-loss safeguards, size will dictate how you pay. If you have fewer than 100 covered employees, you may be able to pay the same amount monthly, just as you do with your fully insured premium. This monthly payment equals projected claims plus an aggregate margin, a monthly administration fee and the stop loss charge. This eliminates unpredictable monthly payments for a small self-funded group.

However, for larger groups of over 100 employees, moving to self-funding will mean paying claims as they are processed (which means uneven claim payments), plus stop loss and administration.

To help you determine if you’re ready for self-funding, you may want to analyze your plan in a few different ways.

1. Look back: A look back analysis is just what it sounds like — a view of how your plan would have performed over the last couple years had you been self-funded, compared to how it did perform under a fully insured model. This should be an easy enough task for your broker to take on, especially if they have sought out self-funded quotes from claim administrators and stop-loss carriers on your behalf. In addition, they should know what your actual claims costs were. The result is that you’ll know whether you would have saved money or not.

2. Look forward: You may already know what your upcoming fully insured renewal looks like. But even if you don’t have hard numbers yet, you can work with your broker to determine a strong estimate of what your proposed premiums will be. Then, your broker should get a self-funded quote, which includes the expected and maximum claims, plus the administrative fees and stop-loss premiums. This is your expected self-funded costs for the upcoming policy period. Compare that estimate to your fully insured renewal costs. (Make sure the self-funded costs are on the same “incurred claims with runout” basis that the fully insured costs would be, for a fair apples-to-apples comparison.)
3. Probability. While the “look forward” analysis compares your fully insured costs to your expected self-funded costs, it is based on “expected” claims. The risky part of self-funding is that your actual claims will not ultimately materialize exactly as expected. There are some more sophisticated tools that combine group-specific data (such as your claims history, demographics and the proposed fixed costs) with a fairly large actuarial database to come up with thousands of possible outcomes.

By charting all of these outcomes, you can produce likelihood percentages of where your actual claims will come in at — versus the “expected” level, and versus the fully insured renewal rate. Not all brokers have this tool on hand, and as a result, there may be a cost associated with producing one. The output from this tool may appeal to your colleagues in the finance department.

Other considerations

During your analysis, you may want to set your self-funded policy year liability based on incurred claims (plus fixed costs), even though your actual paid claims within that policy year may be less due to the lag between when provider services occur and when you actually fund them. The lag is a cash-flow advantage but it does not represent a reduced claim liability.

Finally, don’t lose sight of the cost of high claimants, an important part of planning if you choose the self-funding route. Will your past high claimants continue into your renewal period? Are you aware of new high claimants on the horizon? Stop-loss carriers generally insure only “unknown risks,” not “known risks.” If a plan member has an expensive chronic condition, such as kidney failure, a stop loss carrier may “laser” that individual and set a higher individual stop-loss threshold. It’s important that you know what’s excluded and factor in any uncovered catastrophic claimants into your analysis.

In the end, it may turn out that self-funding is not a good fit, or possibly that this year is just not the year for it. But whether it is, or it isn’t, it is comforting to know that you’ve done your due diligence and have documentation supporting the decision you’ve reached.

SOURCE: DePaola, Raymond (5 October 2018) "Are you ready for self-funding? Three tools to help you decide" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/ready-for-self-funding-three-tools-to-help-you-decide


New rule pushes for hospital price transparency

Beginning in January 2019, hospitals will be required to provide patients with a list of the cost of all their charges. Read this blog post to learn more.


The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced a proposed rule aimed at providing patients with a clear price listing of the cost of their hospital charges. In an effort to fulfill the proposed rule’s objective, CMS suggested an amendment to the requirements previously established by Section 2718(e) of the Affordable Care Act.

CMS issued the final rule (CMS-1694-F), which included the suggested amendment discussed in the April 24, 2018 proposed rule. Currently, under Section 2718(e), hospitals are given the option to either (i) make public a list of the hospital’s standard charges or (ii) implement policies for allowing the public to view a list of the hospital’s standard charges in response to an individual request.

Beginning January 1, 2019, however, hospitals will be required to make available a list of their current standard charges via the Internet in a machine-readable format and to update this information at least annually, or more often as appropriate.

This could be in the form of the chargemaster itself of another form of the hospital’s choice, as long as the information is in machine-readable format. CMS believes that this update will further promote price transparency by improving public accessibility of hospital charge information.

In the final rule, CMS explains that it is aware of the challenges that continue to exist because the chargemaster data may not accurately reflect what any given individual is likely to pay for a particular service or visit.

Additionally, the comments received in response to the proposed rule argue that the chargemaster data would not be useful to patients because it is confusing as to the amount of the actual out-of-pocket costs imposed on a particular patient.

CMS further explains that it is currently reviewing the concerns addressed in the comments, and is considering ways to further improve the accessibility and usability of the information disclosed by the hospitals.

SOURCE: Goldman, M; Grushkin, J; Fierro, C (16 August 2018) "New rule pushes for hospital price transparency" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved by https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/cms-rule-pushes-for-hospital-price-transparency


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.


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


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/


Are You And Your Primary Care Doc Ready To Talk About Your DNA?

Knowing your genes could save your life, especially if a genetic mutation is hereditary. See why incorporating DNA testing is a crucial part of your primary care.


If you have a genetic mutation that increases your risk for a treatable medical condition, would you want to know? For many people the answer is yes. But such information is not commonly part of routine primary care.

For patients at Geisinger Health System, that could soon change. Starting in the next month or so, the Pennsylvania-based system will offer DNA sequencing to 1,000 patients, with the goal to eventually extend the offer to all 3 million Geisinger patients.

The test will look for mutations in at least 77 genes that are associated with dozens of medical conditions ranging from heart disease to cancer, as well as variability in how people respond to pharmaceuticals based on heredity.

“We’re giving more precision to the very important decisions that people need to make,” said Dr. David Feinberg, Geisinger’s president and CEO. In the same way that primary care providers currently suggest checking someone’s cholesterol, “we would have that discussion with patients,” he said. “‘It looks like we haven’t done your genome. Why don’t we do that?’”

Some physicians and health policy analysts question whether such genetic information is necessary to provide good primary care — or feasible for many primary care physicians.

The new clinical program builds on a research biobank and genome-sequencing initiative called MyCode that Geisinger started in 2007 to collect and analyze its patients’ DNA. That effort has enrolled more than 200,000 people.

Like MyCode, the new clinical program is based on whole “exome” sequencing, analyzing the roughly 1 percent of the genome that provides instructions for making proteins, where most known disease-causing mutations occur.

Using this analysis, clinicians might be able to tell Geisinger patients that they have a genetic variant associated with Lynch syndrome, for example, which leads to increased risk of colon and other cancers, or familial hypercholesterolemia, which can result in high cholesterol levels and heart disease at a young age. Some people might learn they have increased susceptibility to  malignant hyperthermia, a hereditary mutation that can be fatal since it causes a severe reaction to certain medications used during anesthesia.

Samples of a patient’s blood or spit are used to provide a DNA sample. After analysis, the results are sent to the patient’s primary care doctor.

Before speaking with the patient, the doctor takes a 30-minute online continuing education tutorial to review details about genetic testing and the disorder. Then the patient is informed and invited to meet with the primary care provider, along with a genetic counselor if desired. At that point, doctor and patient can discuss treatment and prevention options, including lifestyle changes like diet and exercise that can reduce the risk of disease.

About 3.5 percent of the people who’ve been tested through Geisinger’s research program had a genetic variant that could result in a medical problem for which clinicians can recommend steps to influence their health, Feinberg said. Only actionable mutations are communicated to patients. Geisinger won’t inform them if they have a variant of the APOE gene that increases their risk for Alzheimer’s disease, for example, because there’s no clinical treatment. (Geisinger is working toward developing a policy for how to handle these results if patients ask for them.)

Wendy Wilson, a Geisinger spokeswoman, said that what they’re doing is very different from direct-to-consumer services like 23andMe, which tests customers’ saliva to determine their genetic risk for several diseases and traits and makes the results available in an online report.

“Geisinger is prescribing DNA sequencing to patients and putting DNA results in electronic health records and actually creating an action plan to prevent that predisposition from occurring. We are preventing disease from happening,” she said.

Geisinger will absorb the estimated $300 to $500 cost of the sequencing test. Insurance companies typically don’t cover DNA sequencing and limit coverage for adult genetic tests for specific mutations, such as those related to the breast cancer susceptibility genes BRCA1 or BRCA2, unless the patient has a family history of the condition or other indications they’re at high risk.

“Most of the medical spending in America is done after people have gotten sick,” said Feinberg. “We think this will decrease spending on a lot of care.”

Some clinicians aren’t so sure. Dr. H. Gilbert Welch is a professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice who has authored books about overdiagnosis and overscreening, including “Less Medicine, More Health.”

He credited Geisinger with carefully targeting the genes in which it looks for actionable mutations instead of taking an all-encompassing approach. He acknowledged that for some conditions, like Lynch syndrome, people with genetic mutations would benefit from being followed closely. But he questioned the value of DNA sequencing to identify other conditions, such as some related to heart disease.

“What are we really going to do differently for those patients?” he asked. “We should all be concerned about heart disease. We should all exercise, we should eat real food.”

Welch said he was also concerned about the cascading effect of expensive and potentially harmful medical treatment when a genetic risk is identified.

“Doctors will feel the pressure to do something: start a medication, order a test, make a referral. You have to be careful. Bad things happen,” he said.

Other clinicians question primary care physicians’ comfort with and time for incorporating DNA sequencing into their practices.

A survey of nearly 500 primary care providers in the New York City area published in Health Affairs this month found that only a third of them had ordered a genetic test, given patients a genetic test result or referred one for genetic counseling in the past year.

Only a quarter of survey respondents said they felt prepared to work with patients who had genetic testing for common diseases or were at high risk for genetic conditions. Just 14 percent reported they were confident they could interpret genetic test results.

“Even though they had training, they felt unprepared to incorporate genomics into their practice,” said Dr. Carol Horowitz, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, who co-authored the study.

Speaking as a busy primary care practitioner, she questioned the feasibility of adding genomic medicine to regular visits.

“Geisinger is a very well-resourced health system and they’ve made a decision to incorporate that into their practices,” she said. In Harlem, where Horowitz works as an internist, it could be a daunting challenge. “Our plates are already overflowing, and now you’re going to dump a lot more on our plate.”

SOURCE:
Andrews, M (12 June 2018). "Are You And Your Primary Care Doc Ready To Talk About Your DNA?" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://khn.org/news/are-you-and-your-primary-care-doc-ready-to-talk-about-your-dna/


The Business Case for Providing Health Insurance to Low-Income Employees

Low income employees without health insurance could be detrimental for a business. This study explains why providing health insurance for low income employees is crucial for successful performance in the workplace.


After the failed negotiations over the repeal of Obamacare earlier in March, the Trump administration appears to be on the brink of proposing a new health care bill. While the details are still sketchy, it seems likely that the new bill will leave many lower-income Americans without access to health insurance.

I believe there is a case to be made that, should this take effect, the private sector has a strong incentive to step in. The provision of health insurance by organizations is a sensible business decision—especially for low-income individuals. In fact, a number of studies—including one that I co-authored—highlight that health insurance coverage can be beneficial to the bottom line of businesses, and should be endorsed by managers as good corporate strategy if they seek to increase their productivity.

Health insurance for low-income employees is good business for at least three reasons: it is linked with reduced levels of stress, more long-term decision-making, and increased cognitive ability, as well as (perhaps somewhat obviously) increased physical health — all of which are crucial components of higher organizational performance.

Health Insurance Can Reduce Stress

Among other positive outcomes, health insurance significantly decreases the level of stress employees experience, as a study described in a recent working paper shows. Johannes Haushofer of Princeton University and several colleagues worked with an organization in Nairobi, Kenya — the metalworkers of the Kamukunji Jua Kali Association (JKA) — and randomly allocated some employees to receive health insurance free of cost for one year. In other words, the researchers sponsored a health care plan for a proportion of JKAs’ employees, whereas others continued working for JKA as usual.

In addition to collecting data through surveys — for example on the employees’ self-reported health and well-being, and their household characteristics — the researchers did something rather unusual: they collected saliva samples from all respondents, which were later tested for the stress hormone cortisol. These measurements occurred at two time points, at the start of the study and at the end.

The researcher’s results were striking. Not only did employees who received free health insurance report feeling less stressed, but this decline correlated with a reduction in the cortisol measured in the saliva sample. The decrease in cortisol was comparable to roughly 60% of the difference between people who are depressed, and people who are not.

This is important for organizations because employees who experience higher levels of stress are more prone to burning out, and less likely to attain high levels of performance. Stressed employees hurt the bottom-line — and interventions that reduce stress benefit it.

Health Insurance Can Lead to More Long-Term Decision-Making

But health insurance can do more, too. A paper I co-authored with Elke Weber of Princeton University and Jaideep Prabhu of Cambridge University that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesfocuses on one reason why low-income individuals have difficulties escaping their destitute situation. As research has found, we show that poor people are more likely to make decisions that favor the short term, even when these decisions involve smaller payoffs than larger payouts they might receive in the future.

In our study, we find that this is partially the case because low-income individuals experience more pressing financial needs than their richer counterparts. Because they are so pre-occupied with making ends meet, they are unable to even consider a possible larger payout in the future. This way, they remain captured in what Johannes Haushofer and Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich so aptly call the “vicious cycle of poverty.”

However, we also find that interventions that serve to reduce levels of financial need that low-income individuals experience can make them more likely to make more long-term-oriented decisions. One such intervention may be the provision of health insurance. With a safety net they can draw on when health problems arise, poor people may be less likely to experience their financial needs as pressing — and as a result, make more long-term-oriented decisions.

This can lead to significant improvements for organizations as well. Companies require their employees to make many long-term decisions. In many cases, a more long-term orientation is necessary for companies to thrive.

Not Having Health Insurance Can Hinder Cognitive Ability

Finally, health insurance can give low-income individuals peace of mind. A seminal study led by Anandi Mani of the University of Warwick investigated the cognitive consequences of poverty. The researchers found — in concordance with an increasing body of evidence — that lack of money saps people’s attention. While they did not specifically study health insurance, it is easy to extrapolate their research to this question. Given that everyone’s attention is limited, the more people’s concerns weigh on their mind, the less attention they can pay to any one concern.

To illustrate this finding, imagine a case where a low-income employee uses her car to come to work every day. She lives paycheck to paycheck and depends on her steady stream of income. Every day, even when she isn’t driving, she worries about what she would do if her car broke down. Such thoughts circle in her mind incessantly — they are always there, no matter what else she tries to focus her attention on.

Obviously, such worrying thoughts have detrimental consequences for her performance. Constant ruminations make it more difficult to focus on tasks that matter in the moment. Now replace the car in the above scenario with her health; let’s assume she has a chronic condition that requires medical attention when it breaks out. This is not an uncommon case: over 34% of employees have chronic medical conditions, which are even more widespread amongst low-income individuals.

Although many of these physical ailments cannot be cured, their accompanying cognitive detriments can be. Thoughts such as, “How will I pay for the doctor? How can I afford my medication?” could be eradicated with the provision of health insurance. This is especially important for low-income individuals who are more likely to have such worries. And with an increased ability to focus on their work, employees are also more likely to be productive members of the organization. 

It is unclear what will happen in Washington D.C. in the next few months. Will Obamacare be repealed? Will millions of low-income individuals lose their health insurance? In the absence of a resolution, managers may have to step up. There is a business case to be made for providing employees with health insurance, which may make them less stressed, improve their long-term decisions, and lead to increased attention on the task at hand — and the case is especially strong for low-income employees.

SOURCE:

Jachimowicz J (29 May 2018). [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://hbr.org/2017/04/the-business-case-for-providing-health-insurance-to-low-income-employees


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/


Financial shocks could disrupt tomorrow’s retirees

While today’s retirees, dependent as they are on Social Security and traditional pensions rather than 401(k)s, are better able to withstand financial shocks, tomorrow’s retirees won’t have it so easy.

They will be more in danger of being forced to downsize or spend down their assets to meet unexpected expenses such as a spike in medical bills or a loss of income through being widowed.

So says a brief from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, which investigated the financial fragility of the elderly to see how well they might be able to deal with financial shocks.

The reason the elderly are seen as financially fragile, the brief says, stems from the fact that, “once retired, they have little ability to increase their income compared to working households.”

And with future retirees becoming ever more dependent on their own retirement savings, and receiving less of their retirement income from Social Security and defined benefit plans, those financial shocks will get harder and harder to deal with.

To see how that will play out, the study looked at the share of expenditures a typical elderly household devotes to basic needs. Next, it looked at how well today’s elderly can absorb those aforementioned major financial shocks. And finally, it examined the increased dependence of tomorrow’s elderly on financial assets, whether those assets are sufficient, and how well those assets do at absorbing shocks.

Nearly 80 percent of the spending of a typical elderly household, the report finds, is used to secure five “basic” needs: housing, health care, food, clothing, and transportation. In lower-income households or the homes of single individuals and in households that rent or have a mortgage, those basic needs make up even more of a household’s spending.

And while there are areas in which a household can cut back—such as entertainment, gifts or perhaps cable TV—as well as potential cutbacks on basic needs, typical retirees can’t cut by more than 20 percent “without experiencing hardship.” And among those lower-income and single households, as well as those with rent or mortgages to pay, the margin is even slimmer.

The need for medical care is so important to those who need it, says the report, that the question becomes whether medical expenditures crowd out spending on other basic items.

And while a widow is estimated by federal poverty thresholds to need 79 percent of the couple’s income to maintain her standard of living, other studies indicate that widows get substantially less than that from Social Security and a pension—estimates, depending on the study, range from 62 percent to 55 percent. And that likely does not leave a widow enough to meet basic expenses.

Among current retirees, only 10 percent report having to cut back on necessary food or medications because of lack of money over the past 2 years.

However, retirees tomorrow, if they have failed to save enough to see them through retirement, are likely to experience income declines of from 6 to 21 percent for GenXers—and that’s assuming that GenXers “annuitize most of their savings at an actuarially fair rate…” despite the fact that very few actually annuitize, and cannot get actuarially fair rates even if they do.

And since the brief also finds that the greater dependency of tomorrow’s retirees on whatever they’ve managed to save in 401(k)s means that they’re exposed to new sources of risk—“that households accumulate too little and draw out too little to cushion shocks and that their finances are increasingly exposed to market downturns”—that means that future retirees will be subjected to a reduced cushion between income and fixed expenses.

To compensate, they will need to downsize and cut their fixed expenses. Neither one bodes well for a comfortable retirement.

Read the article.

Source:
Satter M. (1 March 2018). "Financial shocks could disrupt tomorrow’s retirees" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/03/01/financial-shocks-could-disrupt-tomorrows-retirees/