December 6, 2018
ACA Premiums Drop in Many States
Premiums for the benchmark silver health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act will go down 1 percent to 2 percent, on average, in 2019.
This sounds like good news to people scurrying to enroll by the Dec. 15 deadline. But a more accurate characterization is that this slight decline is a break from what had generally been a relentless pace of premium hikes in 2016 through 2018.
Cynthia Cox, director of health reform and private insurance for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, said insurance companies in many states had previously “raised premiums more than they had to” amid the uncertainty in the program’s early years. These hikes boosted their profits, but they’ve “put the brakes on premium increases,” which they are required to justify to state regulators.
On close inspection, however, the picture is far more complex. Each state regulates its insurers, and individual state markets have gone in many different directions in the five years since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) went into effect, a Kaiser study shows. The unique developments in each state market reflect a combination of state and federal regulatory changes, insurers’ constant repricing to market conditions, and insurers’ entrances into, and exits from, the state insurance exchanges.
Here are a few examples, based on insurance companies’ rate filings with state regulators:
- Tennessee residents will see the biggest decline in 2019 premiums, a drop of 26 percent for the benchmark silver plan, which is the second lowest-cost silver plan. Tennessee insurers initially had set some of the lowest premiums in the country. In a 2018 adjustment, Cox said they overcorrected them to the point that the policies became “particularly overpriced.” Next year, insurers will drop the premiums as they continue their efforts to find the proper pricing for the state’s insurance market. Somewhat similar stories have played out in New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
- North Dakota premiums are going in the opposite situation. Two years ago, Cox said, insurers there were “losing money quickly,” so they raised their 2018 rates by 8 percent. This increase apparently wasn’t enough, and the benchmark silver premium will rise by another 21 percent next year.
- Alaska’s premiums got so high that the state stepped in. In 2017, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services granted Alaska’s request for a waiver that allowed it to reinsure its health insurance companies to reduce their risk in hopes they would drop their prices. The reform worked. Between 2017 and 2019, Alaska’s benchmark premium has fallen 25 percent.
- New Jersey’s benchmark price will drop nearly 15 percent as a result of a new state law. Last summer, the state instituted a mandate requiring uninsured residents to purchase coverage to replace the federal mandate, which was eliminated. …
October 18, 2018
How Retirees Can Negotiate Drug Prices
A Squared Away reader wrote recently that he and his wife saved $2,400 a year by paying cash for their medications.
When a pharmacy sells a prescription drug to a customer, the health insurer reimburses the pharmacy at a negotiated rate that covers its cost for the drug, its dispensing fees, and any additional markup. It’s often the case that a patient’s copayment exceeds the pharmacy’s reimbursement, resulting in an overcharge in the copayment. More than one in four copayments were overcharges in a March analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association of some 4,000 outpatient drugs and
9 million insurance claims by people of all ages.
We asked Mohamed A. Jalloh in Napa, California, to guide consumers on how to reduce their costs. He is a pharmacist, assistant professor at the Touro University California College of Pharmacy, and a spokesman for the American Pharmacists Association.
Question: How can retirees access their option to pay a cash price for a prescription if it is lower than their Part D or Medicare Advantage plan copayment?
Jalloh: The big picture is that elderly patients should work with a pharmacist to see if they can get a better deal. If you process a prescription through your insurance – whether under an employer’s health insurance or Medicare drug coverage – the price may be higher than paying straight cash for the medication. Anyone can do this. But I imagine it helps seniors the most because they’re the ones taking the most medications.
The key is to ask the pharmacist to go over your medications with you. Do a medication check-up once a year. That’s the best time to see if a pharmacist can get a better deal for you.
Q. Is it common practice to negotiate a cash price?
Jalloh: I think that people do not know about this option and would really appreciate learning about it. It’s also important to remember that, in most cases, people are still going to get a better deal with insurance by paying, say, a $5 or $10 drug copay. …Learn More
October 9, 2018
Switching Medigap Plans is Tricky
When Thomas Uttormark turned 65 in 2010, he researched his Medigap options on the Medicare.gov website and chose a plan with a premium of around $100 a month.
As his premium inched up over the next two years, he decided to apply to another insurance company to see if he could reduce the cost of his policy. Since the federal government dictates the coverage amounts under each of the 10 Medigap plans, he reasoned, his existing insurer’s Plan N provided exactly the same coverage as any other insurer’s Plan N – and the new plan might be cheaper.
“I thought it was no big deal to switch,” said the 73-year-old Uttormark.
However, switching did prove to be a big deal. His application was denied. He suspects it was due to his pre-existing conditions, which included a routine gallbladder surgery before he retired, and his cholesterol, blood pressure and acid reflux conditions, which are fully controlled with medications. The insurer didn’t give him a reason for the denial.
Uttormark ran headlong into a maze of federal regulations that determine whether, when, and how a retiree can transfer from one insurer’s Medigap plan to another insurer’s Medigap. One in four people enrolled in traditional Medicare have Medigap supplemental insurance – about 10 million retirees – and are affected by these restrictive regulations.
They are “particularly confusing,” said Casey Schwarz, the senior counsel for education and federal policy for the Medicare Rights Center in New York and Washington.
She said that people who’ve just signed up for Medicare Parts A and B routinely call her organization because they are having trouble sorting out their options and what they will be permitted to do in the future if they choose either Medigap, which is supplemental coverage for traditional Medicare, or Medicare Advantage private insurance after initially signing up for Medicare Parts A and B.
A handful of states have looser regulations than the federal rules – California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, and Oregon – and allow retirees to move more freely among various Medigap plans, though the states also have their own restrictions.
Schwarz explained that the insurance company denied coverage to Uttormark because he did not qualify for what the federal government calls “guaranteed issue.”
Under guaranteed issue, there is only one time when every Medicare beneficiaries is assured access to a Medigap policy: when they first sign up for Medicare Part B. At this time, insurers can neither deny coverage based on a pre-existing condition nor charge a higher premium if an applicant has a specific health condition.
Another guaranteed issue period applies to limited numbers of retirees. It gives retirees the right to buy a Medigap policy – even people with pre-existing conditions – if they lose their previous coverage through no fault of their own. Perhaps their current Medigap or Medicare Advantage insurer went bankrupt or left the state, or their employer ended its Medicare supplement for retirees. When this occurs, however, the retiree must select a new policy within 63 days of losing their old coverage.
Uttormark didn’t qualify for guaranteed issue because he was choosing to drop his Medigap policy for a less expensive one. Insurers can rightly “refuse to sell him a policy, can charge him more for pre-existing conditions, or refuse to cover his pre-existing conditions,” Schwarz said.
The federal rules also provide an opportunity to switch plans if retirees selected Medicare Advantage as their first form of insurance when they enrolled in Medicare. In this case, they are permitted to move into any Medigap policy sold in their area but they, too, have a restriction: they must do so within the first year of their initial Medicare enrollment.
“Medicare beneficiaries who miss these windows of opportunity may unwittingly forgo the chance to purchase a Medigap policy later in life,” the Kaiser Family Foundation said in a recent policy brief detailing the federal and state regulations.
The Medicare.gov website describes the circumstances in which beneficiaries qualify for federal guaranteed issue. …Learn More
September 27, 2018
Medicaid Expansion Reduces Unpaid Debt
One in five Americans is burdened by unpaid medical bills that have been sent to a collection agency. Medical debt is the most common type of debt in collections.
This burden falls hardest on lower-paid people, who have little money to spare between paychecks. These are the same people the 2014 Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was designed to help. Some 6.5 million additional low-income workers were getting insurance coverage just two years after Medicaid’s expansion, which increased the program’s income ceiling for eligibility in the states that chose to adopt the expansion.
The evidence mounts that this major policy has improved the precarious finances of vulnerable households.
A new study of the regions of the country with the largest percentage of low-income residents found that putting more people on Medicaid has reduced the number of unpaid bills of all kinds that go to collection agencies and cut by $1,000 the amounts that individuals had in collections.
The impact in states that did not expand Medicaid is apparent in Urban Institute data. Five of the 10 states with the highest share of residents owing money for medical bills – North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas – decided against expanding their Medicaid-covered populations under the ACA option. About one in four of their residents have medical debt in collections.
That’s in contrast to Minnesota, which has one of the most generous Medicaid programs in the country and the lowest rate of medical debt collection of any state (3 percent of residents), said Urban Institute economist Signe-Mary McKernan.
“Past due medical debt is a big problem,” she said. “When [people] have high-quality health care, it makes a difference not only in their physical health but in their financial health.” …
August 28, 2018
Medigap Premiums Differ by Thousands
- A 65-year-old woman in Houston can pay $5,300 a year for Medigap’s Plan C policy or she can buy a policy with exactly the same coverage from another insurance company for $1,700 a year.
- A 65-year-old Hartford, Connecticut, man can spend anywhere from $2,900 to $7,400 annually for the most popular and comprehensive Medigap policy – Plan F.
- The price disparity for Plan A for a 75-year-old man in Manchester, New Hampshire, is also large: anywhere from $1,820 to $6,301.
These are fairly typical of the enormous differences in the premiums that consumers across the country are paying for their Medigap policies.
The price disparities are “extraordinary and unable to be justified purely by the coverage that they’re offering,” said Gavin Magor, director of ratings for Weiss Ratings Inc., a consumer-oriented company that assesses insurance companies’ financial stability.
A nationwide analysis by Weiss shows that the premiums vary widely within each group of plans – Medigap Plans A, B, C through N – despite the fact that the coverage in each group is dictated by the federal government and does not change from one insurer to the next. Every company selling a Plan F policy, for example, must offer exactly the same coverage. (The exceptions are Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, where the states regulate their Medigap plans.)
If two people are buying a Chevrolet Camaro in Houston, “you would not expect one person to pay two or three times more than the other one,” Magor said.
Medigap is an added layer of insurance to supplement Medicare for people over 65. The additional coverage helps them with the copayments, deductibles, skilled nursing, and other charges that Medicare does not pay for.
Weiss supplied the data for this article by comparing Medigap premiums sold in each zip code and separately for men and women and for different age groups. The company based the analysis on premiums at more than 170 insurance companies.
There are a few viable explanations for the disparity in premiums. Urban and rural zip codes in the same state may be priced differently, in part because medical costs tend to be higher in the cities. And some insurers might be able to offer lower premiums, either because they are more efficient or are trying to be more price competitive to gain market share.
But Magor said that none of these explanations can fully account for the enormous price differences within zip codes. Many insurers are overcharging for their Medigap policies, he said.
A spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, which represents health insurers, said she could not comment on Weiss’ information without the organization doing its own analysis of the data.
Paying too much for a Medigap plan can have a material impact on a retiree’s life. …
June 21, 2018
Despite Medicare, Medical Expenses Bite
Medicare pays for the bulk of the medical care for Americans over 65, but a lot of their income is still eaten up by medical expenses.
The list of expenses is long. The lion’s share goes toward various insurance premiums – for Medicare Part B coverage, Part D prescription drug coverage, and supplemental insurance, whether Medigap, a Medicare Advantage plan, or employer health insurance for retirees. The remaining costs, for copayments and deductibles, are also significant.
These out-of-pocket costs, when added together, averaged about $4,300 annually per person, finds a new study by researchers Melissa McInerney, Matthew Rutledge, and Sara Ellen King of the Center for Retirement Research.
Out-of-pocket costs consume a third of the amount that retirees receive from Social Security, which is the most significant source of retirement income for a wide swath of the nation’s seniors, including many people in the middle-class. Half of seniors get at least half of all their income from the federal program.
The Medicare Part D prescription drug program has given some relief to retirees. After it became effective in 2006, the share of seniors’ income consumed by out-of-pocket costs declined slightly and then declined again after a follow-up reform of Part D began to close a big gap in drug coverage – known as the donut hole – in 2010. …Learn More
June 14, 2018
Health in Old Age: the Great Unknown
This cartoon, by Vancouver Sun cartoonist Graham Harrop, hits on one of retirees’ biggest mysteries: their future health.
The elderly live with the anxiety of getting a grave illness that isn’t easy to fix, such as cancer or a stroke. And despite having Medicare insurance, they also have to worry how much it would cost them and whether they would run through all of their savings.
They’re right to worry. Health care costs increase as people age from their 50s into their 60s and 70s. About one in five baby boomers between 55 and 64 pays extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses in any given year. But by 75, the odds increase to one in four, according to a report summarizing the reasons that some seniors’ finances become fragile.
Large, unexpected medical expenses are one of two major financial shocks that threaten their security – widowhood is the other. A small and unlucky share of retirees will find it difficult to absorb a spike in their medical costs, forcing them to cut back on food or medications, the report said.
Harrop’s cartoon is the product of his cousin’s inspired suggestion that he fill a book with cartoons about the humorous accommodations made between couples who’ve lived together for decades. The book – “Living Together after Retirement: or, There’s a Spouse in the House” – reveals his personal knowledge of the subject. Harrop, who is 73, has lived with his partner, Annie, for more than 20 years.Learn More