March 14, 2019
Drug Discounts, Other Help Available
Consumers are powerless to control spiraling medication prices, but low-income, uninsured and under-insured individuals can often get help paying for their drugs.
The help, in the form of subsidies or prescription price reductions, comes from four sources. The first is exclusively for seniors on Medicare, but the rest are available to everyone.
Medicare’s Extra Help program provides up to $4,900 to subsidize retirees’ drug copayments and Medicare Part D premiums. Individuals are eligible for this assistance if their income is less than $18,210 and the value of their investments, bank accounts and other assets is under $14,390. The limits for couples are $24,690 in income and $28,720 in assets. Retirees who own their homes do not have to include the property’s value in this limit. Social Security’s website explains what does and does not count as assets.
Social Security takes the applications for this Medicare program. Applications can be submitted either online (SSA form 1020) or in person by making an appointment at a local Social Security office. Social Security also notifies seniors about whether they qualify.
Price discounts in an app
If your drug is not covered by your health insurance, Consumer Reports suggests trying two cell phone apps (or go online) to search for the lowest-cost prescriptions at various pharmacies in your area. On the apps – GoodRx and BlinkHealth – search your drug name and dose and enter your zip code to find the discounted prices, which can vary dramatically. These companies act as middlemen between consumers and Pharmacy Benefit Managers, which buy generic and brand-name medications in bulk from manufacturers and pass the volume discounts on to consumers. GoodRx provides a coupon that can be saved on a phone or printed out for the pharmacist. BlinkRx requires consumers to pay for the drug on its website and provides a voucher for the pharmacist. These cash prices will not be run through insurance – and won’t count against your deductible – said Lisa Gill, Consumer Reports deputy editor and a specialist in medication pricing.
Walmart also offers discounts on generic drugs, and Costco has very low retail drug prices. Which option is best for you? “It’s going to depend on which medication you take and probably where you live,” Gill said. Not everyone will have success in reducing their costs but, she added, “if the drug’s not covered by insurance, it’s worth trying.” …
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
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. …