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/


A look at how the opioid crisis has affected people with employer coverage

The opioid crisis is affecting more and more people each day. Discover how the opioid crisis affects you with this study on employer coverage.


With deaths from opioid overdose rising steeply in recent years, and a large segment of the population reporting knowing someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers, the breadth of the opioid crisis should come as no surprise, affecting people across all incomes, ages, and regions. About four in ten people addicted to opioids are covered by private health insurance and Medicaid covers a similarly large share.

Private insurance covers nearly 4 in 10 non-elderly adults with opioid addiction

In this analysis and a corresponding chart collection, we use claims data from large employers to examine how the opioid crisis has affected people with large employer coverage, including employees and their dependents. The analysis is based on a sample of health benefit claims from the Truven MarketScan Commercial Claims and Encounters Database, which we used to calculate the amounts paid by insurance and out-of-pocket on prescription drugs from 2004 to 2016. We use a sample of between 1.2 and 19.8 million enrollees per year to analyze the change from 2004 to 2016 in opioid-related spending and utilization.

We find that opioid prescription use and spending among people with large employer coverage increased for several years before reaching a peak in 2009. Since then, use of and spending on prescription opioids in this population has tapered off and is at even lower levels than it had been more than a decade ago. The drop-off in opioid prescribing frequency since 2009 is seen across people with diagnoses in all major disease categories, including cancer, but the drop-off is pronounced among people with complications from pregnancy or birth, musculoskeletal conditions, and injuries.

Meanwhile, though, the cost of treating opioid addiction and overdose – stemming from both prescription and illicit drug use – among people with large employer coverage has increased sharply, rising to $2.6 billion in 2016 from $0.3 billion 12 years earlier, a more than nine-fold increase.

Trends in prescription opioid use & spending among people with large employer coverage

Opioid prescription use among people with large employer coverage is highest for older enrollees: 22% of people age 55-64 had at least one opioid prescription in 2016, compared to 12% of young adults and 4% of children. Women with large employer coverage are somewhat more likely to take an opioid prescription than men (15% compared to 12%). Opioid prescription use among people with large employer coverage is also higher in the South (16%) than in the West (12%) or Northeast (11%).

Among people with large employer coverage, older enrollees are more likely to have an opioid prescription

Among people with large employer coverage, the frequency of opioid prescribing increased from 2004 (when 15.7% of enrollees had an opioid prescription) to 2009 (when 17.3% did). After reaching a peak in 2009, the rate of opioid prescribing began to fall. By 2014, the share of people with large employer coverage who received an opioid prescription (15.0%) was lower than it had been a decade earlier, and by 2016, the share was even lower, at 13.6% (a 21% decline since 2009).

The share of people with large employer coverage taking opioid prescriptions is at its lowest levels in over a decade

Among people with large employer coverage, this pattern (of increasing opioid prescription use through the late 2000s, followed by a drop-off through 2016) is similar across most major disease categories. Some of the steepest declines in opioid prescription use since 2009 were among people with complications from pregnancy or childbirth, musculoskeletal conditions, and injuries. The share of people experiencing complications from pregnancy or childbirth who received an opioid prescription peaked in 2007, when 35% received an opioid prescription, but this share dropped to 26% in 2016. Similarly, in 2007, 37% of people with large employer coverage who had a musculoskeletal condition received an opioid prescription, but the share dropped to 30% by 2016. The same decline can be seen among people with large employer coverage who experienced injuries and poisonings (37% in 2009, down to 30% in 2016).

Opioid use declined across disease categories, particularly pregnancy, musculoskeletal diseases, and injuries

We also see a sharp decline in the use of opioid prescriptions among people with cancer diagnoses, particularly in the most recent couple of years. In 2016, 26% of people with large employer coverage who had a cancer diagnosis received at least one opioid prescription, down from 32% in 2007. Despite declines in opioid prescribing for musculoskeletal conditions, people with large employer coverage who have musculoskeletal diagnoses still receive opioid medications more frequently (30%) than those with cancer diagnoses (26%).Overall in 2016, among those receiving an opioid prescription, a slightly larger share received only a single prescription in that year (61%) than did in 2006, a decade earlier (58%). The average number of prescriptions each person received also rose from 2004 until 2010 and then fell again, but this measure is imperfect because it does not adjust for the length of the supply or the strength of the drug received.

In total, large employer plans and their enrollees spent $1.4 billion in 2016 on opioid prescription painkillers, down 27% from peak spending of $1.9 billion in 2009. In 2016, $263 million, or 19% of total opioid prescription drug spending was paid out-of-pocket by enrollees.

Spending on opioid prescriptions peaked in 2009

Opioid prescriptions have represented a small share of total health spending by large employer plans and enrollees.

Treatment for Opioid Addiction & Overdose among People with Large Employer Coverage

In 2016, people with large employer coverage received $2.6 billion in services for treatment of opioid addiction and overdose, up from $0.3 billion in 2004. Of the $2.6 billion spent on treatment for opioid addiction and overdose in 2016 for people with large employer coverage, $1.3 billion was for outpatient treatment, $911 million was for inpatient care, and $435 million was for prescription drugs. In 2016, $2.3 billion in addiction and overdose services was covered by insurance and $335 million was paid out-of-pocket by patients. (This total only includes only payments for services covered at least in part by insurance, not services that are paid fully out-of-pocket and not billed to insurance, so it is likely an undercount of opioid addiction and overdose treatment expenses by this population.)

The cost of treating opioid addiction and overdose has risen even as opioid prescription use has fallen

Spending on treatment for opioid addiction and overdose represents a small but growing share of overall health spending by people with large employer coverage. In 2016, treatment for opioid addiction and overdose represented about 1% of total inpatient spending by people with large employer coverage and about 0.5% of total outpatient spending. In 2004, treatment for opioid addiction and overdose represented about 0.3% of total inpatient spending and less than 0.1% of total outpatient spending. On average, inpatient and outpatient treatment for opioid addiction and overdose added about $26 per person to the annual cost of health benefits coverage for large employers in 2016, up from about $3 in 2004.

The bulk of the total $2.6 billion in spending for treatment of opioid addiction and overdose among people with large employer coverage was treatment for young adults, totaling $1.6 billion in 2016, even though young adults are prescribed opioids less often than older adults. Males also used more treatment than women ($1.6 billion vs $1.0 billion).

Spending on opioid addiction and overdose treatment is mostly concentrated among younger people

The bulk of spending by people with large employer coverage on inpatient and outpatient treatment for opioid addiction and overdose was for employees’ children (53%) or spouses (18%), while just under a third (29%) was for employees themselves.

Among people with large employer coverage who had outpatient spending on treatment for opioid addiction and overdose, their average outpatient expenses totaled $4,695 (of which $670 was paid out-of-pocket) in 2016. Among those with inpatient spending on treatment for opioid misuse, their average inpatient expenses totaled $16,104 (with $1,628 paid out-of-pocket) in 2016. On average, inpatient expenses have risen sharply, up from $5,809 in 2004.

In 2016, 342 people per 100,000 large group enrollees received treatment for opioid overdose or addiction, including 67 people per 100,000 who received treatment in an inpatient setting.

Discussion

Among people with large employer coverage, utilization of opioid prescription painkillers has declined somewhat in recent years. Use of and spending on prescription opioids by this group peaked in 2009 and has since dropped to the lowest levels in over a decade. Across most major disease categories, we see a similar pattern of the frequency of opioid prescription use rising until the late 2000s and then declining through 2016.

Despite declining rates of opioid prescribing to those with employer coverage, spending on treatment for opioid addiction and overdose has increased rapidly, potentially tied to growing illicit use and increased awareness of opioid addiction. Opioid addiction and overdose treatment – the bulk of which is for dependents of employees – represents a small but growing share of overall employer health spending.

Methods

We analyzed a sample of claims obtained from the Truven Health Analytics MarketScan Commercial Claims and Encounters Database (Marketscan).  The database has claims provided by large employers (those with more than 1,000 employees); this analysis does not include opioid prescription or addiction treatment for other populations (such as the uninsured or those on Medicaid or Medicare).  We used a subset of claims from the years 2004 through 2016.  In 2016, there were claims for almost 20 million people representing about 23% of the 85 million people in the large group market.  Weights were applied to match counts in the Current Population Survey for large group enrollees by sex, age, state and whether the enrollee was a policy holder or dependent.  People 65 and over were excluded.

Over 14,000 national drug codes (NDC) were defined as opiates.  In general, we defined “prescription opioids” as those with a primary purpose of treating pain. Only prescriptions classified under the controlled substance act are included. We excluded from this category Methadone, Suboxone (Buprenorphine with Naloxone), and other drugs commonly used to treat addiction.  We also excluded medications not commonly prescribed (such as Pentazocine).  Each opiate script was counted as a single prescription regardless of the quantity or strength of that prescription.  The Marketscan database only includes retail prescriptions administered in an outpatient setting.  Disease categories are defined by AHRQ’s chronic condition indicators, and based on the diagnosis an enrollee receives.

In our analysis of opioid addiction and overdose treatment, we include medications used to treat overdose (e.g. Naloxone) and drugs used to treat addiction (e.g. Methadone and Suboxone). We also include inpatient and outpatient medical services to treat opioid addiction or overdose, identified by ICD-9 and ICD-10 diagnosis codes. Midway through 2015, Marketscan claims transitioned from ICD-9 to ICD-10.  While both systems classify diagnoses, there is no precise crosswalk between the two.  In consultation with a clinician, we selected both ICD-9 and ICD-10 codes which are overwhelmingly used for opioid addiction or signify misuse.  A list of these ICD codes is available upon request.  Because of the change in coding systems, it is not possible to tracks trends between 2014 and 2016.  Diagnoses related to heroin abuse were included as opiate abuse.

Because there is no precise way to identify costs associated with opioid addiction and overdose treatment, some of our rules for inclusion lead to an underestimate, while others lead to an overestimate. In general, we elected a conservative approach. For example, in some cases, opioid abuse diagnoses may be classified under a broader drug abuse diagnosis and therefore are not captured.  Additionally, we do not include the costs associated with diagnoses that commonly arise from opioid abuse, such as respiratory distress or endocarditis, unless an opioid abuse diagnosis was also present.  However, if a claim included an opioid abuse diagnosis along with other diagnoses, we included spending for all procedures during that day, even if some of those interventions were to treat concurrent medical conditions unrelated or indirectly related to opioid abuse.  If an enrollee paid fully out-of-pocket and did not use their insurance coverage, this spending is also not included.  Overall, we think these assumptions lead to an underestimate of the costs associated with opioid addiction and overdose treatment for the large employer coverage population.

SOURCE:
Cox C (24 May 2018). "A look at how the opioid crisis has affected people with employer coverage" Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from address https://www.healthsystemtracker.org/brief/a-look-at-how-the-opioid-crisis-has-affected-people-with-employer-coverage/#item-start


Are Virtual Doctor Visits Really Cost-Effective? Not So Much, Study Says

As the virtual world expands, it raises a question: at what point does it take away from the user experience? In this article from Kaiser Health News, we take a look at a study presenting facts on how virtual healthcare may be an issue rather than a convenience. Read further for more information.


Consultations with doctors by phone or video conference appear to be catching on, with well over a million virtual visits reported in 2015. The convenience of “telehealth” appeals to patients, and the notion that it costs less than an in-office visit would make it attractive to employers and health plans. But a new study suggests that while telehealth services may boost access to a physician, they don’t necessarily reduce health care spending, contrary to assertions by telehealth companies. The study, published Monday in the journal Health Affairs, shows that telehealth prompts patients to seek care for minor illnesses that otherwise would not have induced them to visit a doctor’s office. Telehealth has been around for more than a decade, but its growth has been fueled more recently by the ubiquity of smartphones and laptops, said Lori Uscher-Pines, one of the study’s authors who is a policy researcher at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.

These virtual consultations are designed to replace more expensive visits to a doctor’s office or emergency room. On average, a telehealth visit costs about $79, compared with about $146 for an office visit, according to the study. But it found that virtual visits generate additional medical use. “What we found is contrary to what [telehealth] companies often say,” Uscher-Pines told California Healthline. “We found an increase in spending for the payer.” The researchers found that only 12 percent of telemedicine visits replaced an in-person provider visit, while 88 percent represented new demand. The researchers examined 2011-13 utilization data of 300,000 people enrolled in the Blue Shield of California Health Maintenance Organization plan offered by the California Public Employees Retirement System, which covers current and former state employees and their families. CalPERS’ Blue Shield HMO started offering telehealth services, available 24/7 to its beneficiaries, in April 2012.

The researchers focused on virtual visits for respiratory illnesses, which include sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia and tonsillitis, among others. While a single telehealth visit for a respiratory illness costs less than an in-person visit, it often results in more follow-up appointments, lab tests and prescriptions, which increases spending in the long run. Liability concerns may prompt telehealth physicians to recommend that a patient go in for a face-to-face appointment with a doctor, the study notes. Researchers estimated that annual spending for respiratory illnesses increased about $45 per telehealth user, compared with patients who did not take advantage of such virtual consultations. Jason Gorevic, the CEO at Teladoc, the operator that provides telehealth services for CalPERS Blue Shield members, said the new study doesn’t square with Teladoc data showing the cost savings of telemedicine.

According to 2016 data, Gorevic said, only 13 percent of Teladoc visits represent new medical use. He noted that the Rand study uses older data, and that many things have changed since then — including the technology, the rate at which these services are being adopted and patient engagement. “In fact, other more comprehensive studies — using six times the amount of claims data including the same population as the [Rand] study — have found tremendous value of telehealth, with consistently repeatable results,” Gorevic said. These other studies have shown that telehealth decreases overall health care spending, he said. But Uscher-Pines said the Rand findings were not surprising.

When Rand researchers studied retail clinics last year, they found that making access to health care more convenient triggers new use and additional costs. That study found 58 percent of visits to in-store clinics represented new use of medical services rather than a substitute for doctor office visits. Yet the fact that telehealth services are more affordable per visit than a trip to a physician’s office shows that there is still a pathway to cost savings, Uscher-Pines said. To achieve cost savings, telehealth services would have to replace costlier visits, the researcher said. Insurers could increase telehealth visit costs for patients to deter unnecessary use.

Another way to increase the health system value of virtual doctor visits is to target specific groups of patients — such as those who often use emergency rooms for less severe illnesses. An emergency room visit costs an estimated $1,734. “You could take these people in the emergency department and offer them this cheaper option. That would be a direct replacement,” Uscher-Pines said. Gorevic said that a challenge for telehealth is engaging consumers, so the comparatively low fees provide a financial incentive. “Because a telehealth visit is much cheaper than an in-person visit, the cost sharing should be reflective of that,” he said.

Marcus Thygeson, senior vice president and chief health officer at Blue Shield, which also provides virtual doctor visits through Teladoc, in a statement said that “increased convenience can increase utilization, so overall healthcare costs may increase or stay the same. Blue Shield supports the use of telemedicine to improve access for both primary and specialty healthcare, especially in rural communities.” The researchers noted several limitations to the Rand study.

For example, researchers examined only one telehealth company and studied only visits for respiratory illnesses. In addition, the patients whose data were scrutinized had commercial insurance, and it is possible the use of telehealth would differ among people with government insurance, high-deductible plans or no insurance at all, the study said.

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. Written by: Ana B. Ibarra


Summarized Report of The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll March 2018 for Non-Group Enrollees

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Kaiser Health Tracking Poll – March 2018: Non-Group Enrollees

Key Findings: As part of the Republican tax reform plan signed into law at the end of 2017, lawmakers eliminated the ACA’s individual mandate penalty starting in 2019. About one-fifth of non-group enrollees (19 percent) are aware the mandate penalty has been repealed but is still in effect for this year. Regardless of the lack of awareness, nine in ten non-group enrollees say they intend to continue to buy their own insurance even with the repeal of the individual mandate. About one-third (34 percent) say the mandate was a “major reason” why they chose to buy insurance.

Survey: 9 in 10 people with non-group health insurance plan to continue buying insurance despite the repeal of the individual mandate penalty About half the public overall believes the ACA marketplaces are “collapsing,” including six in ten of those with coverage purchased through these marketplaces. In fact, across party identification and insurance type, more say the marketplaces are “collapsing” than say the marketplaces are not collapsing. Overall, the population who buy their insurance through the ACA marketplace report being satisfied with the insurance options available to them during the most recent open enrollment period and more than half give the value of their insurance a positive rating. Yet, some (32 percent) experienced problems while trying to renew or buy their coverage and six in ten marketplace enrollees say they are worried about the possible lack of health insurance coverage in their areas.

In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order directing his administration to expand the availability of non-renewable short-term insurance plans, and regulations have been proposed to implement the order. When asked whether non-group enrollees would prefer to purchase such a plan or prefer to keep the plan they have now, the vast majority (84 percent) say they would keep the plan they have now while 12 percent say they would want to purchase a short-term plan. The most common response offered by people who are uninsured when asked the reason why they don’t have health insurance is that it is too expensive and they can’t afford it (36 percent), followed by job-related issues such as unemployment or their employer doesn’t offer health insurance (20 percent).

Who Are Non-Group Enrollees?
This report examines people’s experiences with the current health insurance market focusing on individuals who currently have health insurance they purchased themselves (referred to as “non-group enrollees” throughout the report). This is comprised of individuals who purchase their own insurance through an Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace (“marketplace enrollees”) as well as those who purchase their insurance outside of the ACA markets. 1 In the first half of 2017, 10.1 million people had health insurance that they purchased through the ACA exchanges or marketplaces. 2 For comparison, the report also examines individuals ages 18-64 without health insurance (“uninsured”) as well as those who get their insurance through their employer (“employer-sponsored insurance”).

These extended interviews were conducted as part of the February and March Kaiser Health Tracking Polls and were completed after the close of the law’s fifth open enrollment period, which ended earlier this year. The Individual Mandate as part of the Republican tax reform plan signed into law at the end of 2017, lawmakers eliminated the ACA’s individual mandate penalty. The tax plan reduced the individual penalty for not having health insurance to zero beginning in 2019, effectively repealing the least favorable provision of the ACA (according to polling conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation). There is still uncertainty among the public as well as among the groups most directly affected by the individual mandate (non-group enrollees and the uninsured) on the status of the mandate.

—kff.org


Health Savings Accounts: What Did The IRS Change?

 

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Don’t Get Tripped Up By The IRS’ Tweak To Health Savings Accounts

It’s tax time, and this week I answered questions from readers about the penalty for not having health insurance as well as changes to health savings accounts. I also discuss health insurance coverage options for a reader’s parents who are immigrants and green card holders.

Q: I heard that health savings account rules would be loosened under the new spending bill passed by Congress last month. Did that happen?

No. In fact, the standards have become slightly tighter this year. In recent years, members of Congress from both parties have supported expanding eligibility for health savings accounts and how the money in them can be spent, among other things. To date, though, those proposals haven’t become law.

Health savings accounts, which are linked to high-deductible health plans, continue to multiply. In 2017, there were 22 million accounts totaling more than $45 billion in assets, an increase of 11 percent in the number of accounts over the previous year, according to Devenir, a firm that offers advice on HSA investments. Money deposited in HSAs is tax-deductible, grows tax-free and can be used without owing tax to pay for medical expenses. Advocates promote the plans as a way to help consumers play a larger role in controlling their health spending and say that the tax advantages help people afford care.

The Internal Revenue Service announced last month that the maximum amount individuals with family coverage could contribute to their health savings accounts would actually be reduced slightly from their previously announced limit for 2018. The maximum contribution for people with individual coverage in 2018 remains $3,450. The $50 family coverage contribution reduction, from $6,900 to $6,850, is pretty small change. It happened because the federal government altered the way it calculates inflation adjustments to the contribution limits.

But ignoring the new limit could create headaches for people who have already made the maximum HSA contribution for the year based on the $6,900 figure, said Roy Ramthun, president of HSA Consulting Services. If you don’t ask the bank that handles your HSA to return the $50 plus any earnings that have accrued before the next tax season, your taxable income will be off by that amount, plus you’ll be on the hook for a 6 percent penalty for exceeding the maximum contribution allowed. That’s not going to amount to a lot of money, but there’s more than financial pain to consider, Ramthun said. “Do you really want to give the IRS a reason to come find you?”

Q: I didn’t have health insurance for one month last year, in January 2017. Do I owe a penalty for not having health insurance when I file my taxes this spring?

If you were uninsured for only one month in 2017, you won’t owe a penalty. People can be uninsured for up to three consecutive months during the year without triggering a tax penalty for not having coverage, said Tara Straw, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This year, for the first time, the Internal Revenue Service won’t accept electronically filed tax returns unless filers report whether they had health insurance all year, were exempt from the requirement or will pay a penalty for not having had coverage. Tax refunds that are due with paper returns that don’t have this information may be delayed, according to the IRS.

—khn.org