maze

Behavior

Switching Medigap Plans is Tricky

Thomas Uttormark

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

Money Culture

Federal Taxes Have a Good Side Too

This Donald Duck cartoon, funded by the U.S. government in 1943, urged Americans to pay their income taxes to support the war effort. Paying taxes was a patriotic act, to build up the inventory of war planes and battleships to defeat the Nazis – “sink the Axis!” the narrator bellows.

Nobody liked paying taxes then, and they still don’t. Yet there was a growing awareness as the war played out in the 1940s that taxes – like saving your scrap metal – were necessary to advance the greater good.

Things are different today. There doesn’t seem to be as much room in the public conversation for the benefits that federal taxes bestow, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid (nursing home funding) and the Part D prescription drug benefit for retirees, or for government investments in education, roads, and research – or about who would suffer more if deprived of these benefits.

“Most people who do in fact receive significant forms of economic security from the federal government don’t know it,” argued Molly Michelmore, an economic historian at Washington and Lee University, in a recent interview on New York public radio. …Learn More

Field Work

Advantage Premiums Reflect Networks

Chart: Medicare premiumsA new study of Medicare Advantage plans in 20 U.S. counties found that plans with higher premiums generally offer broader networks of physicians to their customers.

“There are exceptions but there does seem to be a fairly clear relationship between how much plans are charging and the size of the network,” said Tricia Neuman, a Kaiser senior vice president and one of the study’s authors.

The correlation between premiums and network size is one finding in a rare study that tries to get a handle on the quality of Advantage plans around the country amid a scarcity of data on these plans. An earlier Kaiser study looked at how many of a county’s hospitals and top cancer treatment centers are available in Advantage plans.

Advantage plans are increasingly popular for good reason: they have lower premiums or offer more extras than enrolling in the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program and purchasing a Medigap supplement and Part D prescription drug policy.

They are able to offer lower premiums based, to some extent, on their ability to keep their costs under control, whether this is how much they’re paying to their physicians or to testing labs. But because there is very little data on what Advantage plans pay for medical services, Neuman said that it’s difficult to sort out what is driving the plans’ costs – and, in turn, the premiums customers pay.

However, others argue that an insurer’s degree of control over the costs of its medical providers depends on how much market power it has over the physicians it pays for services. The federal Medicare program, for example, has tremendous clout to set prices for medical services, because it controls a large segment of the demand for health care by elderly beneficiaries relative to the supply of physicians and other medical service providers. Research suggests that Advantage plans may partly control their costs by anchoring their payments to Medicare’s payment rates. However, narrowing the networks may be another way for Advantage plan insurers to gain market clout to control costs.

There is wide variation, from county to county, in the breadth of the physician networks. For example, most of the retirees in Advantage plans in Clark County (surrounding Las Vegas) and in Harris County (Houston) are enrolled in narrow networks. …Learn More

Money Culture

Medicaid: it’s Not Just for Nursing Homes

Medicaid serves millions of low-income Americans, many of them elderly. Federal spending on this program now approaches the dollars spent on Medicare, the primary health care program covering virtually all Americans over 65.  Many people confuse the two programs, or cast Medicaid as a program strictly for the poor.  Many are unaware of the financial support that it provides to seniors.

With major changes to Medicaid now being debated, Squared Away interviewed Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, to learn just what Medicaid does.

Medicaid Basics Chart - Revised

Q. Describe Medicaid’s broad mission and how older Americans fit into that mission.

A. Medicaid’s basic mission has been to provide support from the federal government to the states to enable them to provide health and long-term care services to their low-income populations, which include seniors in many states. This includes both people who need assistance with long-term care, but Medicaid also helps one in five Medicare beneficiaries pay for their premiums and cost-sharing obligations under Medicare. In essence, Medicaid is the gap-filler for many of Medicare’s seniors, including seniors with disabilities who have low incomes.

Q. Virtually everyone over 65 enrolls in Medicare? So why do seniors need Medicaid?

A. Seniors need Medicaid, because over one-quarter of seniors have very low incomes. Medicare doesn’t pay for 100 percent of medical care, and some of the gaps in Medicare coverage are unaffordable for low-income seniors. They can’t afford Medigap policies to help with Medicare’s cost-sharing requirements. Many struggle even to pay their Part B premiums. One of the first roles of Medicaid – and over the 52-year history of the program – was always that the program was going to fill in the holes for seniors under Medicare. Medicaid’s other role is that Medicare does not provide a lot of the benefits that seniors need in nursing homes and in their communities. At one time, Medicaid also helped with prescription drugs – back when Medicare didn’t cover them. In many places, Medicaid will also help to pay for dental, eyeglasses and other services Medicare doesn’t cover. Essentially Medicaid has always been the wraparound for Medicare for both the benefits Medicare doesn’t cover and for the financial obligations that Medicare imposes on low-income people.

Q. Nearly two-thirds of nursing home patients are on Medicaid. This nursing home funding isn’t just for the poor, is it?

A. Medicare will pay for some nursing-home coverage immediately after hospitalization, but it does not include a benefit that helps people who need long-term assistance, especially people with cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s or who need other services that require substantial help at home. Nursing homes are expensive – $90,000-$100,000 per year – so even if someone enters a nursing home with their own resources, they quickly spend that down. Once they spend it down, Medicaid picks up the remainder of their care. Many good, hard-working, middle-class seniors who retire – if they or their spouse need nursing home care – quickly become unable to pay the full cost of their nursing home stay, and that’s when Medicaid kicks in. …Learn More

Money Culture

A Bigger Bite Out of Social Security

Social Security chartMost retirees didn’t notice the $5 cost-of-living increase in the average Social Security check. That’s because the Part B Medicare premium deducted from their checks went up nearly as much (from $104.90 in 2016 to an average $109 this year).

Beyond premium hikes, the bigger issue for retirees are the additional out-of-pocket costs they must pay as part of their Part B coverage for doctor visits and outpatient care. When rapidly rising copayments are added to the basic premium, they together consumed more than 15 percent of the average Social Security benefit last year. That is more than double the percentage in 1980, and it’s expected to exceed 17 percent by 2030, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS).

The CMS estimates were made prior to the announcements of 2017’s final COLA and Part B increases. But the trend of eroding benefits was confirmed by Juliette Cubanski, associate director of Medicare policy for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. …Learn More

Prescription drugs

Money Culture

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