Posts Tagged "health insurance"

Good News on Health Insurance in Pandemic

To paraphrase a U.S. senator in 1977, the moral test of government is how it treats the sick, the poor, and its children. That rings especially true during an historic public health emergency like COVID.

Congress came through with financial relief to blunt the pandemic’s impact, and the money that flowed through the economy provided more Americans with health insurance, while also reducing poverty.

Several newly released U.S. Census reports “show how much vigorous policies can do to prevent poverty and preserve access to health care,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded.

The Uninsured. During the pandemic, the share of all adults lacking health insurance declined from 9.2% in 2019 to 8.6% in 2021, reversing the trend of a rising uninsured rate in prior years. The rate dropped as Congress improved access and affordability during COVID by passing large premium reductions for policies purchased on the federal and state exchanges and by requiring states that receive Medicaid funds to expand their coverage of poor and low-income workers during the pandemic.

Congress has extended the premium reductions through 2025, but the federal enhancements to Medicaid are set to expire, leaving states to determine the extent to which they will cover their low-income workers in the future.

The Poor. The COVID aid passed by Congress lifted nearly 14 million Americans out of poverty over the past two years, according to Census. This statistic aligns with earlier research showing the financial assistance was particularly effective in helping low-income workers and people who were struggling financially prior to the pandemic. …Learn More

Good Riddance Medicare Donut Hole!

Medicare’s donut hole is the bane of existence for retirees with expensive medications.

They will get substantial relief in 2025, when the Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Biden last week, will cap all retirees’ annual drug copayments at $2,000. Monthly drug plan premiums are not included in this cap.

The cap will effectively eliminate the donut hole that currently requires retirees to pay 25 percent of the cost of their prescription drugs until they reach a threshold amount. The threshold increases every year and hit $7,050 this year.

A relatively small group of about 1.5 million retirees pay more than $2,000 for their prescriptions. But many of them are spending $5,000, $10,000 or more.

“It’s going to be an amazing thing” if the cap is implemented as Congress intended, said Ashlee Zareczny, compliance supervisor for Elite Insurance Partners, a Medicare health insurance broker outside Tampa.

Some of her firm’s retired clients pay so much for their medications that they have to make difficult choices between medications and food or other essential items. People who rely on Social Security “shouldn’t have to make those choices,” Zareczny said.

The cap will apply to all Medicare beneficiaries, whether they get their prescription drug coverage through a Part D plan or Medicare Advantage insurance plan, she said.

Under the current system, insurers that sell Medicare drug plans have a $480 maximum they are permitted to charge for the deductible. After meeting the deductible, retirees make their predetermined copayments under the insurance plan. They enter the donut hole after they spend $4,430 out of pocket, and then they are required to pay 25 percent of the cost of their drugs until they reach a threshold that pushes them into the catastrophic phase of Medicare’s drug coverage.

Once the catastrophic coverage kicks in, however, they are still responsible for 5 percent of the remaining drug costs. In 2024 – a year before the $2,000 cap goes into effect – the new healthcare law will eliminate the 5 percent copay.

The cap on total spending will protect any retiree who develops a medical condition requiring them to take very expensive medications. Currently, there is no limit on how much they may have to spend.

And, Zaraczny said, “They’re not prepared to put forth this money.” …Learn More

ACA Policyholders May Dodge a Bullet

It looks like some 13 million people who buy their health insurance on the state and federal exchanges may not see large hikes in their premiums next year after all.

The more generous premium subsidies for Affordable Care Act (ACA) policyholders approved in 2021 under the American Rescue Plan for COVID relief are set to expire at the end of this year. There have been months of uncertainty over whether Congress could pass a bill to continue the subsidies.

But The Washington Post reports that the House and Senate are on a path to agreeing to extend them for three more years, along with allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices of some prescription drugs.

Last year, the American Rescue Plan enhanced the ACA’s original subsidies by capping insurance premiums at 8.5 percent of a worker’s income for 2021 and 2022. If the caps are renewed, ACA policyholders would also avoid the “double whammy” of insurance companies’ 2023 premium hikes, which they have started submitting to their state insurance regulators.

The prospect of an agreement comes months after state insurance commissioners warned lawmakers that the uncertainty around whether the subsidies would continue meant that some insurers would raise 2023 premiums by more than they might have. ACA subsidies make health insurance more affordable to more people, which takes some pressure off of premiums by expanding the pool of customers and reducing insurers’ risk.

Two groups that historically have paid more for health insurance are benefitting the most from a premium cap set at 8.5 percent of income: middle-income workers, who tend to pay a larger percentage of their income for an ACA policy, and older workers, who pay higher premiums because insurers view them as risky.

Before the caps were put in place, workers earning four or more times the federal poverty level did not get any subsidies and paid full price for ACA coverage. Without the assistance, for example, a 40-year-old earning about $51,500 would be paying 20 percent more – or $438 per month instead of the $365 she currently pays, according to the Kaiser Foundation.

Premiums would’ve been 62 percent higher in New York and more than double in Wyoming. …Learn More

Limiting Medical Debt: a 50-State Ranking

Lawmakers in Maryland, California and Maine have made the most effort to prevent residents from drowning in medical debt. Texas, South Carolina and Tennessee do the least.

This is the assessment of an organization known as Innovation for Justice, a team of researchers at the University of Arizona and the University of Utah. They ranked the 50 states on whether they have taken myriad steps to minimize medical debt. These legislative measures range from restrictions on the healthcare industry’s billing and collection practices to how debt claims are handled in the courts.

Medical debt is the single largest category of consumer debt, and the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 100 million Americans are behind on paying their medical or dental expenses – and a quarter of them owe more then $5,000.

This project would be important at any time and is even more so during a pandemic when many people have incurred medical debt for COVID. Some of that debt is even for bills the federal government would’ve paid on behalf of the uninsured cashiers, drivers, retail workers, restaurant servers and cooks who were on the front lines in the worst days of the pandemic.

Putting the state rankings into a national perspective, the consumer protections to prevent the accumulation of debt are not exactly impressive. Only three of the 50 states qualify as having good protections. The researchers ranked another 27 states as weak and 20 as poor.

Compare Medical Debt Policies by US StatesMaryland, which sits at the top of the medical debt scorecard, satisfies most of the researchers’ criteria for debt reduction. State lawmakers have limited residents’ debt by mandating that patients be screened for health insurance or government health benefits. The state also regulates hospital billing practices, instructing them to offer a payment plan before sending a patient’s bill to collections and requiring that bills itemize every charge, every payment, and whether charity care has been provided to the patient.

Last but not least, Maryland expanded its Medicaid program, as encouraged by the Affordable Care Act, to extend subsidized or free health insurance to more of its low-income workers. Medical debt has been reduced in the states that expanded their coverage. The lowest-ranked states – Texas, South Carolina and Tennessee – are among the states that have not expanded Medicaid.

Visit the medical debt scorecard to see what your state is – or isn’t – doing. …Learn More

Problem? Medicare Rights Center Can Fix it

He is a one-time heart surgery patient and vulnerable to COVID. She has to take her medication religiously twice a day to prevent a blood pressure spike.

Image of Mr. and Mrs. Quader.

Mr. and Mrs. Quader.
Source: Medicare Rights Center.

During the pandemic, Mr. and Mrs. Quader of Brooklyn, New York, got a notice that the health care subsidy they had been receiving through the Medicare Savings Program for low-income retirees had been terminated.

Luckily, counselors on the Medicare Rights Center’s telephone hotline solved the couple’s problem – just like they have helped tens of thousands of retirees nationwide every year that the center’s New York City helpline has been operating.

“They knew where to go. They knew what to do,” Mrs. Quader said in one of several video testimonials posted to the Medicare Rights Center’s website. “They stood by us every time.”

She made the call to the center because she had just happened to hear about it. It turned out the Quadar’s paperwork had been lost in the system, and the couple’s counselor got the benefits restored.

Rose. Source: Medicare Rights Center.

Rose.
Source: Medicare Rights Center.

The Medicare Rights Center’s services, which are free of charge, cover myriad problems retirees encounter under Medicare, such as how to appeal insurance company denials of coverage for treatments or medications. The counselors also solve unique problems like that of a 66-year-old woman named Rose. The Plant City, Florida, resident needed a replacement wheelchair but had received one she was unable to use, rendering her immobile. The center got her a chair that worked for her.

“When I sat down in that chair for the first time, it was nice and cushy,” she said in a Medicare Rights Center video. “I could finally go [outdoors] and see the light.”

Many people who call the center need help with simpler issues like enrolling in Medicare Parts A and B or sorting out their options for additional coverage. Bill’s enrollment problem was much more complicated. …Learn More

Mental Health Crisis is an Inequality Problem

The connection between Americans’ socioeconomic status (SES) and their health was established long ago and the evidence keeps piling up.

"Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health" book coverLess-educated, lower-income workers suffer more medical conditions ranging from arthritis to obesity and diabetes. And the increase in life expectancy for less-educated 50-year-olds was, in most cases, roughly 40 percent of the gains for people with higher socioeconomic status between 2006 and 2018.

More recently researchers have connected SES and mental health. The foundations are laid in childhood. In one study, the children and teenagers of parents with more financial stresses – job losses, large debts, divorce, or serious illness – have worse mental health. And COVID has only aggravated the nation’s mental health crisis.

In a new book, Dr. Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, is concerned about the impact of inequality.

Mental health in disadvantaged communities “is worse because of the world outside of health care. It’s our housing crisis, our poverty crisis, our racial crisis, our increasing social disparities that weigh heaviest on those in need,” he writes in “Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health.” …Learn More

Using Home Equity Improves Retiree Health

Retirees spend $1,500 more per year, on average, for medical care after a diagnosis of a serious condition like lung disease or diabetes.

Often, the solution for individuals who can’t afford such big bills is to scrimp on care or avoid the doctor altogether. But older homeowners can get access to extra cash if they withdraw some of the home equity they’ve built up over the years.

While the money clearly provides financial relief for retirees, a new study out of Ohio State University finds that it is also good for their health. Every $10,000 that Medicare beneficiaries extracted from their homes greatly improved their success in controlling a chronic or serious disease.

Among the retirees who had hypertension or heart disease, for example, one standard used to determine whether the condition was under control was whether blood pressure levels stayed below 140/90, which the medical profession deems an acceptable level. The people who tapped their home equity were more likely to stay below these levels than those who did not.

This is one of several studies in recent years to tie financial security to home equity, a resource many retirees are reluctant to tap. A study in 2020 found that older homeowners were less likely to skip medications due to cost after they had extracted equity through a refinancing, home equity loan, or reverse mortgage.

But this new research is the first attempt to connect the strategy to retirees’ actual health. The analysis followed the health of more than 4,000 homeowners for up to 15 years after they were diagnosed with one of four conditions – lung disease, diabetes, heart conditions, or cancer. …Learn More