August 11, 2016
Medicare Advantage: Know the Pitfalls
Baby boomers on Medicare are streaming into Medicare Advantage plans, with nearly 18 million people currently enrolled in them.
But a new study identifies pitfalls that might not be obvious to those signing up.
Advantage plans are HMOs or PPOs that provide both basic Medicare Part B coverage and many of the benefits offered by supplementary Medigap insurance policies. But Medicare beneficiaries’ premiums for an Advantage plan plus Medicare Part B coverage are roughly half, on average, of the premiums for a Medigap policy plus Part B.
One reason is that Medigap policies typically cover more out-of-pocket costs. Another is that insurers offering Advantage plans assemble networks of hospitals and physicians to control their costs and reduce customers’ premiums.
But, the researchers point out, Advantage plans frequently limit “access to certain providers and increase the cost for care obtained out-of-network.”
In nearly half of the 20 U.S. counties examined in a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Advantage plans had limited networks of hospitals, potentially increasing consumers’ costs. Further, a large majority of Advantage plans did not include their county’s top-quality, high-cost cancer treatment center in the networks of approved health care providers.
And it can be very difficult to compare access to care and the future out-of-pocket medical costs that will result from a decision to go with an Advantage plan. Costs vary greatly among Advantage plan networks, with coverage often described in complex, incomplete, or confusing insurance plan documents, Kaiser said.
Consumers also face a dizzying array of choices. One example: In Cook County, which includes Chicago, eight difference insurance companies are selling 19 Advantage plans with 10 different provider networks.
Many retirees learn the ins and outs of the network only after they try to access medical care under the plan. The Kaiser report’s key findings provide a roadmap of things consumer should watch for: …
August 2, 2016
Rising Health Costs a Factor in Inequality
Inequality is frequently in the news. A new study puts an interesting spin on this now-familiar topic: rising health costs are a significant reason for wage inequality.
The cost of employer-provided health insurance is a larger share of lower-paid employees’ total compensation than it is for the people higher up in the organization. Since insurance costs have been increasing faster than total compensation, squeezing out pay raises, the nation’s lowest-paid workers feel it most.
For people with earnings at the 30th percentile of all U.S. workers, total compensation, including the cost of employer health insurance as well as actual earnings, increased by just 9 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1992 and 2010, according to data in a new study by Mark Washawsky at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Total compensation for high-paid workers at the 95th percentile grew 19 percent.
However, the rapidly rising cost of employer-provided health insurance took a larger bite out of lower-paid workers’ earnings – and out of their take-home pay. Inflation-adjusted earnings at the bottom rose by just 3 percent over the 18-year period, compared with a 17-percent increase at the top.
Washawsky correctly notes that employer-provided health insurance is a form of compensation that is valuable to all workers, regardless of how much they earn. The problem for workers living paycheck to paycheck is that they pay their day-to-day bills out of what’s left in that paycheck. That’s where you’ll find the inequality from rising healthcare costs.
So how should policymakers tackle U.S. inequality? Warshawsky argues that any prescription to reduce wage disparities should “focus on reducing the rate of increase in healthcare costs.”Learn More
July 12, 2016
What’s New in Public Pension Funding
A small group of researchers at the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, produces a large volume of analysis of the nation’s state and local government pension funds.
Their work isn’t typical of the personal finance information that appears in this blog. But it turns a bright light on the financial condition of the pension funds that millions of state and local government workers and retirees rely on. The bottom line, according to these studies, is that while some funds are in poor condition, many more are managing.
The following are short descriptions of the Center’s recent reports, with links to the full reports:
- The big picture is updated in the new brief, “The Funding of State and Local Pensions: 2015-2020.” Eight years after the financial crisis, new data have confirmed that pension plan funding stabilized in 2015. And despite poor stock market performance last year, plan funding improved slightly in 2015 under traditional accounting methods. On the other hand, funding is slightly lower under new accounting rules that require the plans’ financial statements to value their investment portfolios at market values.
The appendix in this brief provides funded levels for 160 individual plans in the Center’s public pension database.
- “Are Counties Major Players in Public Pension Plans?” The answer in this report is no, with the exceptions of California, Maryland and Virginia, where counties account for about 15 percent of pension assets.
- While retiree health plans are quickly disappearing at private employers, they remain prevalent in the public sector. These plans are not fully funded, and their unfunded liabilities are relatively large – equivalent to 28 percent of all liabilities for unfunded public pension plans – according to a March report, “How Big a Burden Are State and Local OPEB Benefits?”
- New accounting rules, known as GASB 68, require city pension funds that are joint participants in plans administered by their state, to transfer their net unfunded liabilities from the state’s to the local government’s books. …
June 21, 2016
Too Much Health Plan Choice is Costly
Technology, coffee, investments, beer – most consumers value choice in some aspect of their lives. But what if having too many choices leads to bad decisions and costly mistakes?
Carnegie Mellon University economists Saurabh Bhargava and George Loewenstein, and Justin Sydnor from the University of Wisconsin School of Business, found this to be the case at one company that required employees to select from a menu of options and build their personal health plans from the ground up. The researchers found that the employees typically designed health plans that would cost them more than other plans with similar coverage.
The cost of these choices was large for the average employee – about one-quarter of their annual premium payments in the coming year. An extreme example is the group that chose a plan with a $350 deductible. They paid about $1,100 more in premiums to save, at most, $650 in out-of-pocket spending throughout the next year.
There might be reasons that someone would choose a low-deductible plan – not having enough cash on hand in case of a medical emergency, for example. But in this particular setting, Bhargava explained in an email, “none of these explanations could reasonably account for people paying $2 to $4 in extra premiums to reduce $1 in expected out-of-pocket expenses.”
Further, lower-paid employees earning under $40,000 per year were much more likely to make these mistakes.
Bhargava said that the paradox of too many choices confronts the millions of Americans who sign up online for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – including his mother. In a recent presentation, he said she is “like a lot of consumers” and has “a strong aversion to a high deductible.” …
June 9, 2016
Medicare vs Medicaid in Nursing Homes
When a spouse or parent requires long-term care, quality is the top priority. But a report last year by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) cited concerns about the quality of the federal data essential for monitoring the quality of care. For example, three key indicators point to improvements: better nursing staff levels and clinical quality and fewer deficiencies in care that harm residents. Yet consumer complaints jumped 21 percent between 2005 and 2014, even though the number of nursing home beds has remained roughly flat in recent years.
Anthony Chicotel, an attorney with the San Francisco non-profit California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said care quality is intertwined with affordability, payment sources, and dramatic changes under way in nursing home economics. For his views on this important topic, Squared Away interviewed Chicotel, who is also part of a national coalition of attorneys advocating for patient rights.
Question: Recent Boston Globe articles have highlighted substandard care at nursing home companies that allegedly sacrificed resident care quality for profits. Are these a few bad actors or is this a larger problem?
Problems exist in the traditional buyer-seller marketplace for nursing homes and long-term care services. Providers all get paid pretty much the same rate regardless of whether the care they provide is good or bad. It’s usually the government who’s paying, and they’ve got an imperfect monitoring system to make sure the rules are followed.
The bottom line is that dollars can be extracted from a for-profit facility that don’t go into patient care. What you sometimes see is a nursing home affiliated with a number of other companies that provide services to the nursing home at above-market rates. The same web of companies running the nursing home might be in charge of the linen supplies, medical equipment, therapy, and the above-market rents for the facilities. If they’re paying, say, $12,000 a month for linens instead of sending it to a non-affiliated company, and it costs only $7,000 per month to supply the linens, they’re making a $5,000 profit. I don’t think the government’s going to catch that or account for that money.
Q: Long-term care is so expensive – more than $6,000 per month, on average. What are the top three financial issues that face nursing home patients and families? … Learn More
June 2, 2016
Medicaid Expansion: Winners vs Losers
Low-income residents are in better financial shape in the 31 states that have expanded their Medicaid health coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
That’s the bottom line in a new study finding that they have fewer unpaid bills being sent to collection agencies and their collection balances are $600 to $1,000 lower than their counterparts in non-expansion states. This contrasts with the years prior to the 2014 Medicaid reform, when residents of would-be expansion and non-expansion states had very similar financial profiles.
State decisions about whether or not to expand their Medicaid rolls are having “unambiguous” and “important financial impacts,” concluded researchers at the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
Medical crises are expensive for most workers but are virtually insurmountable for low-income Americans. The annual cost of care for someone hospitalized at some time during 2012, for example, was $25,000 – more than many low-wage workers earn in a year.
To address this risk, the ACA expanded Medicaid health coverage to more people and established a new income threshold to qualify at 138 percent of the federal poverty level – or about $16,000 for an individual. A U.S. Supreme Court decision later gave states the option of expanding their Medicaid programs.
The researchers’ findings were based on credit reporting data on 1.8 million individuals between 19 and 64 years old who are living below 138 percent of the federal poverty. They analyzed the impact of Medicaid availability on non-medical debt, such as credit cards, in zip codes with the highest percentage of people under the threshold during 2014 and 2015. [Mortgage debt was excluded.]
The purpose of health insurance is to provide a financial cushion by limiting the spike in out-of-pocket expenditures when a medical crisis strikes. For low-wage workers, this cushion takes the form of Medicaid.Learn More
January 21, 2016
Seniors Vulnerable to Drug Price Spikes
Total U.S. spending on prescription drugs by individuals, insurers and governments jumped 13 percent last year – the largest increase since 2001. One in four Americans report having difficulty paying for medications.
Older Americans are somewhat shielded from the full impact of rising drug prices by Medicare’s Part D program, which greatly expanded their coverage. Since Part D’s implementation in 2006, seniors’ average out-of-pocket spending on medications has actually declined, from $708 to $564 annually in 2012.
But a recent trend of price spikes for specialty drugs might be a snake in the grass for seniors on fixed incomes. Since most take multiple prescriptions, they face greater odds of needing at least one of these expensive medicines.
Drug cost stability for seniors “is starting to reverse as newer specialty drugs come into the marketplace,” said Juliette Cubanski, a senior Medicare policy researcher for the Kaiser Family Foundation. Part D plans “are covering these drugs and people are taking them, but the costs are going up.”
They include new breakthrough drugs that cure – rather than just treat – Hepatitis C, as well as medications for rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and cancer. Kaiser estimates that a senior who takes one of the 12 specialty drugs it analyzed can pay anywhere from $4,400 to $12,000 per year out of their own pockets, even after taking into account Part D’s subsidies. …Learn More