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Will Employers Favor Private Exchanges Over Coverage Sponsorship?


October 17th, 2014

Over the past couple years, health care exchanges probably have consumed more of corporate benefits managers’ time and psychic energy than any other topic. An outstanding question is whether the rank and file of American businesses will drop the hassle that employer-sponsored coverage represents, or default to private exchanges.

Private exchange offerings typically move employees from their companies’ previous self-funded health plans to fully-insured individual arrangements, purporting to offer more flexibility and choice that can adapt to the wide-ranging needs of employees and employers, while creating a more competitive health plan marketplace.

Several recent surveys have reported that employers plan to move aggressively to private exchanges. In a survey last year of more than 700 businesses, the Private Exchange Evaluation Collaborative, a group of regional business health coalitions working with the consulting group PwC, found that 45 percent of employers have implemented or are considering using a private exchange for active employees before 2018. Similarly, a February Aon Plc survey found that, while 95 percent of employers say they expect to continue offering health care for the next 3-5 years, and 5 percent of employers currently use a private exchange, 33 percent say they may consider using one in the future.

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Implementing Health Reform: Reference Pricing And Network Adequacy


October 12th, 2014

On October 10, 2014, the Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services issued a frequently asked question (FAQ) regarding the use of reference-based pricing in non-grandfathered large group employer plans.  Although the issue the FAQ addresses specifically is the use of reference pricing, the FAQ is remarkable insofar as it is the first departmental guidance that I am aware of that addresses the use of networks by self-insured ERISA plans.

Network adequacy is an issue that has long been addressed in the nongroup and insured group market in many states by state insurance law.  The ACA also requires qualified health plans, and arguably any individual and small group plan subject to the essential health benefits requirements, to have adequate provider networks.  Special rules implementing ACA section 2719A of the ACA limit cost-sharing for out-of-network coverage for emergency services.

The departments also stated in an earlier FAQ that cost sharing cannot be applied by any non-grandfathered health plan for preventive services provided by out-of-network providers if the services are not available in network.   But I am unaware of the departments otherwise attempting previously to regulate group health plan network requirements, at least under the ACA.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Value-Oriented Payment Jumps, And Yet …


September 30th, 2014

Today, Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR) unveiled some potentially exciting news: Our 2014 National Scorecard on Payment Reform tells us 40 percent of commercial sector payments to doctors and hospitals now flow through value-oriented payment methods, defined as payment methods designed to improve quality and reduce waste.  This is a dramatic increase since 2013 when the figure was just 11 percent.

Traditional fee-for-service, where we pay for every test and procedure regardless of its value, may rapidly be becoming a relic.  While the Scorecard findings are not wholly representative of health plans across the United States, they are directionally sound and allow us to measure progress toward value-oriented payment in the commercial sector.  (Scorecard findings are based on data representing almost 65 percent of commercial health plans across the country.)

On the face of it, this is thrilling news for CPR, especially since our organizational goal is that at least 20 percent of payments to doctors and hospitals will flow through methods proven to improve value by the year 2020.  But we are not closing up shop just yet.  The proliferation of value-based payment arrangements only matters if they succeed at reducing costs and improving the quality of care. And for many value-oriented payment models, we still don’t have the evidence.

We also remain a bit circumspect because only about half of the value-oriented payments (out of that 40 percent figure) put providers at some financial risk if they fail to improve care or spend over budget.  To employers and others helping to foot the bill for health care, many new payment methods often feel like “cost plus arrangements.”  Instead, purchasers would like to see risk sharing across payers and providers.

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Implementing Health Reform: Excepted Benefits Final Rule


September 29th, 2014

Congress adopted Title I of the Affordable Care Act to increase access to health coverage for individuals by reforming employer group health coverage and health insurance offered to individuals and groups, requiring large employers to offer their employees affordable minimum health coverage or pay a penalty, imposing a penalty on individuals who can afford health coverage but fail to obtain it, and offering advance premium tax credits through the exchanges to individuals who cannot otherwise afford to purchase health coverage.

Coverage has long been available both through groups and for individuals that provides some health-related benefits but is neither a group health plan nor insured health coverage, as those terms are defined in the ACA.  These benefits were originally labeled by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 as “excepted benefits,” because they are excepted from the forms of benefits regulated initially by HIPAA and now by the ACA.

On September 26, 2014 the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Labor, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“the agencies”) issued regulations expanding access to excepted benefits through insured and self-insured groups.

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Implementing Health Reform: Complicated ACA Tax Forms Could Cause Problems


September 21st, 2014

In a few months, millions of Americans will be filing either form 8962 to reconcile the advance premium tax credit they received with the tax credit they were actually due, or form 8965 because they owe a tax under the shared responsibility (individual mandate) provision of the Affordable Care Act or claim an exemption from that requirement.

By the close of open enrollment in April, 6.7 million Americans had chosen a qualified health plan with premium tax credits,  and many more have since enrolled in a QHP through a special enrollment period and received tax credits.  Each of them will need to file a form 8962.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 30 million Americans are potentially subject to the shared responsibility requirement, and that 23 million of them may qualify for an exemption.  The 7 million individuals who owe the penalty will have to file a form 8965, as will most of the 23 million who claim an exemption.

On September 15, 2014 the Internal Revenue Service released draft instructions for form 8965.  On September 17, 2014, the IRS released draft instructions for form 8962.  It is difficult to overstate how complicated these instructions are.  The tax credit and individual responsibility provisions of the ACA were complicated to begin with, but have become ever more complex as new exceptions and special rules have been created as implementation of the legislation has proceeded.  Many of the mostly low income Americans who will be completing these forms are marginally literate, at least in English, and have been accustomed to filing very simple tax forms like the 1040-EZ (which cannot be used by an individual claiming a tax credit) or perhaps not to filing taxes at all.  They are likely to be confused, frustrated, even angry, and certainly bewildered, completing these forms.  It is to be hoped that most of them will be assisted by well-trained tax preparers.

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New Health Policy Brief: Employee Choice


September 18th, 2014

A new Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) looks at health coverage choice for employees of small businesses. Unlike large organizations, small businesses have been less likely to provide comprehensive health insurance or a choice of plans, and their employees are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured.

To address this insurance gap, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) created the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) Marketplaces in each state. (Note: The SHOP exchange was the subject of an earlier Health Policy Brief.) These Marketplaces (eighteen run by state exchanges, thirty-three by the federal government) will provide “one stop shopping,” for small businesses to compare health plans and enroll their employees.

To make SHOP Marketplaces more attractive to small businesses, the ACA required SHOP Marketplaces to offer a feature known as employee choice, in which employers can offer their employees a choice from multiple health insurance plans. While the majority of state-based SHOP Marketplaces have chosen to offer access to multiple plans, employee choice will not be mandatory until 2016. This Health Policy Brief examines the issue of employee choice, the status of its implementation, and whether the concept is successfully attracting more small businesses to offer coverage through SHOP Marketplaces.

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Employer-Sponsored Family Health Premiums Rise 3 Percent In 2014


September 10th, 2014

Average annual premiums for employer-sponsored family health coverage reached $16,834 this year, up 3 percent from last year, continuing a recent trend of modest increases, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF)/Health Research & Educational Trust (HRET) 2014 Employer Health Benefits Survey released today. Workers on average pay $4,823 annually toward the cost of family coverage this year. Health Affairs Web First article published today contains select findings from the KFF/HRET report.

This year’s increase continues a recent trend of moderate premium growth. Premiums increased more slowly over the past five years than the preceding five years (26 percent vs. 34 percent) and well below the annual double-digit increases recorded in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This year’s increase also is similar to the year-to-year rise in worker’s wages (2.3 percent) and general inflation (2 percent).

Annual premiums for worker-only coverage stand at $6,025 this year.  Workers on average contribute $1,081 toward the cost of worker-only coverage this year.

“The relatively slow growth in premiums this year is good news for employers and workers, though many workers now pay more when they get sick as deductibles continue to rise and skin-in-the-game insurance gradually becomes the norm,” Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman, said.

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Transcending Obamacare? Analyzing Avik Roy’s ACA Replacement Plan


September 2nd, 2014

Avik Roy’s proposal, “Transcending Obamacare,” is the latest and most thoroughly developed conservative alternative for reforming the American health care system in the wake of the Affordable Care Act. It is a serious proposal, and it deserves to be taken seriously.

Roy’s proposal is a curious combination of conservative nostrums (limiting recoveries for victims of malpractice), progressive goals (eliminating health status underwriting, providing subsidies for low-income Americans), and common sense proposals (enacting a uniform annual deductible for Medicare).

Most importantly, however, Roy proposes that conservatives move on from a single-minded focus on repealing the ACA toward building upon the ACA to accomplish their policy goals. He supports repealing certain features of the ACA—including the individual and employer mandate—but would retain others, such as community rating and exchanges. As polling repeatedly shows that many Americans are not happy with the ACA, but that a strong majority would rather amend than repeal it, and as it is very possible that we will have a Congress next year less supportive of the ACA than the current one, Roy’s proposal is important.

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Implementing Health Reform: Tax Form Instructions


August 29th, 2014

On August 28, 2014, the Internal Revenue Service re-released the draft forms that will be used by employer, insurers, and exchanges for reporting Affordable Care Act tax information to individuals and to the IRS for 2014 and 2015, as well as the instructions for completing those forms.  The IRS also released in the Federal Register requests for public comments on three of those forms — the 1094-Bthe 1094-C, and the 1095-C — under the Paperwork Reduction Act.  This post reports on these forms and instructions and on a guidance released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The tax forms had been published earlier and are described in an earlier post.  The instructions for the forms, however, had not been available and had been eagerly awaited by employers, insurers, exchanges, and tax professionals. Forms 1094-C and 1095-C will be used by large employers with more than 50 full-time or full-time-equivalent employees to determine whether the employer is responsible for penalties under the employer shared responsibility requirements of the ACA.  They will also be used to determine whether employees have received an affordable and adequate offer of coverage, rendering them ineligible for premium tax credits.  Employers are required to provide each full-time employee with a form 1095-C and to file each of these together with a transmittal form 1095-B form with the IRS.

The instructions for the 1094-C and 1095-C are by far the most complex of the instructions released on August 28, filling 13 pages with dense, two column, print.  Most of the complexity derives from the options for complying with the employer mandate and the transition exceptions to that mandate that the administration has created.  These alternatives and exceptions were explored in my posts on the employer mandate final rule when it was issued in February, 2014.  These forms are also complicated by the fact that the IRS decided to allow self-insured large employers to file only the large employer 1094-C and 1095-C, rather than requiring them to also fill out the 1094-B and 1095-B forms, which are filed by other entities that provide minimum essential coverage.  Because the employer mandate has been delayed, large employers are not required to file these forms for 2014, although they may do so voluntarily.

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Implementing Health Reform: New Accommodations For Employers On Contraceptive Coverage


August 22nd, 2014

On August 22, 2014, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury released an interim final  and a proposed  rule providing for the accommodation of religious objections on the part of an employer or institution of higher learning to providing their employees or students coverage for contraceptive services.  A fact sheet on the rules was also released,   as was a notice on the revision of the form used to collect information on religious objections to contraceptive coverage.

The proposed rule, which applies to for-profit entities, is being issued in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which ruled that closely-held for-profit corporations may refuse to cover contraceptives for religious reasons.  The interim final rule responds to the Court’s interim order in Wheaton College v. Burwell  (and to 31 lower court injunctions) that released religious non-profit organizations from accommodations earlier proposed by HHS.

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The “Failure” Of Bundled Payment: The Importance Of Consumer Incentives


August 21st, 2014

Bundled payment for orthopedic and spine surgery and other major acute interventions has many attractive features, in principle. But implementation has been difficult in practice.  The recent Health Affairs paper by Susan Ridgley and colleagues, and the Health Affairs Blog commentary by Tom Williams and Jill Yegian, list quite a few practical implementation problems, and the points raised in both these pieces are well taken.

As leaders in the Integrated Health Association (IHA) bundled payment initiative, we shared the same hopes, devoted the same energies, and share the same frustrations with the modest results.  We feel it is important to emphasize what we consider to be the initiative’s most important design failure: the lack of engagement and alignment on the part of the consumer.  No one will ever reform the U.S. health care system without bringing the consumer along and, indeed, placing consumer choice and accountability at the very center of the reform initiative.

On an optimistic note, this design failure is being addressed by the larger health care marketplace in the wake of numerous failed attempts to reform health care by focusing exclusively on provider payment and incentives.

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The Evolution Of A Two-Tier Health Insurance Exchange System


August 13th, 2014

Health reform has been a catalyst for change. It has fostered the creation of public health insurance exchanges and accelerated existing trends in health insurance coverage for employees. Many employers are reevaluating their coverage offerings, some employers are no longer providing insurance coverage, and, among those who continue to offer it, high deductible plans with restricted networks are becoming the norm.

In addition, employers are increasingly outsourcing health insurance benefits management by moving employees to private health insurance exchanges – often in combination with a shift toward a defined contribution approach. Estimates vary, but surveys show that anywhere from 9 to 45 percent of employers plan to implement private exchanges in the future.

Accenture (figure 1) has predicted that by 2018, private exchange enrollment will outpace public exchange enrollment.

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Implementing Health Reform: Medicare And The ACA Marketplaces (Updated)


August 12th, 2014

On August 1, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a set of frequently asked questions on the relationship between Medicare and the marketplaces. This is not the first guidance CMS has published on this topic, and much of the information in the FAQ was already available. The FAQ is also quite repetitive, as it answers the same questions under different headings, such as “general enrollment FAQs” and “consumer messaging,” but does contain useful information. This post briefly summarizes the FAQ.

The FAQ emphasizes the fact that Medicare and marketplaces operate independently, with little overlap. The marketplaces do not enroll individuals in Medicare or in Medicare Advantage plans and do not sell Medicare supplement plans. Indeed, exchanges cannot legally sell coverage to Medicare beneficiaries.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Accountable Care Organizations


August 5th, 2014

“The accountable care organization is like a unicorn, a fantastic creature that is vested with mythical powers. But no one has actually seen one,” said former California HealthCare Foundation CEO, Mark Smith, MD, in 2010. Over the last four years, we’ve certainly seen a proliferation of unicorns and we’re now reaching the point where fantasy—at least in a handful of cases—is becoming a reality.

A growing number of large employers are piloting accountable care organizations (ACOs), working through their health plan; in some cases they are doing so directly with provider systems, such as the new Boeing arrangement with Providence Health and Services, Swedish Health Services, and University of Washington Medicine and Intel’s contracting efforts in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon. The large employers and other health care purchasers with whom we work — eager, if not desperate, for solutions to contain the costs of health care and improve its quality — are watching these first movers carefully to see if ACOs prove to be a viable strategy for improving population health and bending the cost trend.

These leading purchasers intend to set the bar high. They cannot make the investment to pursue these ACO relationships if they are not assured that their populations will see meaningful, measurable gains in their health care and its affordability, as well as their health. That often means contractual commitments to lowering total costs of care and showing improved patient outcomes for targeted populations — like high risk, medically complex patients. Our purchaser colleagues who have been among the early adopters of ACO arrangements have begun to identify the features critical to successful ACOs; these are the elements other purchasers will look for when deciding if it’s worth proceeding.

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Implementing Health Reform: IRS Releases Premium Tax Credit Rules And Draft Forms


July 25th, 2014

Although the focus of activity the week of July 21 was in the courts, the agencies were not totally silent. On July 24, 2014 the Internal Revenue Service released final and temporary and proposed regulations addressing issues that are presented by the premium tax credit program. The IRS also released drafts of the forms that individuals, insurers, and employers will use for reporting information to the IRS necessary for reconciliation of premium tax credits and for the enforcement of the individual and employer mandate programs. Finally, the IRS set the maximum individual mandate penalty for individuals whose income is high enough that they pay the penalty as a percentage of income rather than a flat dollar amount. This amount is established by the statute as the average cost of a bronze level plan for the applicable family size for 2014 and was set by the IRS at $2,448 per individual annually, up to $12,240 for families of five or more.

The draft forms operationalize the reporting requirements established by rules published earlier. Insurers and self-insured health plans will provide a Form 1095-B to each of their enrollees and members, and file these forms, together with a transmittal form 1094-B with the IRS. Large employers must provide a form 1095-C to each employee, and transmit these, together with a transmittal form 1095-B to the IRS. Exchanges will provide their enrollees a form 1095-A. Individuals who receive premium tax credits will file a form 8962 with the IRS, while individuals claiming an exemption from the individual mandate will file a form 8965. Though the forms are not accompanied by instructions, they are quite straightforward and track closely the earlier released rules.

The final and temporary rules address several situations that will arise under the premium tax credit program that have not yet been addressed by the premium tax credit rules. The temporary rules are identical to the proposed rules and will cease to apply once the proposed rules are finalized.

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The Latest Health Wonk Review


July 21st, 2014

Over at Wing of Zock, Jennifer Salopek offers some fresh thoughts in her “Polar Vortex” Health Wonk Review. Jennifer highlights Health Affairs Blog posts on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision by Tim Jost, John Kraemer, and Sara Rosenbaum and coauthors, as well as a slew of other great posts.

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Implementing Health Reform: Hobby Lobby Response, The ACA In The Territories, And More


July 18th, 2014

July 17, 2014 was a remarkably active day in an otherwise quiet week for Affordable Care Act implementation. First, the Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services issued their first response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision —a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) guidance requiring ERISA plans to provide notice to their participants and beneficiaries if they do not intend to cover contraceptives. Second, the Department of Health and Human Services sent letters to the territories (the Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico) informing them that insurers that market individual insurance policies in the territories are no longer required to comply with the ACA’s insurance market reforms.

Third, HHS released an enrollment bulletin at its REGTAP website describing how insurers in the federally facilitated exchange should handle enrollment for 2015 for individuals whose coverage was terminated in 2014 for non-payment. This post describes these issuances, as well as the May Medicaid enrollment report released on July 11, 2014 by HHS

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Income Verification On The Exchanges: The Broader Policy Picture


July 14th, 2014

The Affordable Care Act scandal de jour (or at least one of them) is the difficulty the exchanges have faced in verifying the eligibility of many premium tax credit applicants. Two Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General Reports in early July documented the existence of these problems. One reported that as of the first quarter of 2014, the federal exchange alone had been unable to resolve 2.6 or 2.9 million data inconsistencies. Another reported that internal controls at the federal and two state exchanges were not fully effective in ensuring that individuals enrolled in exchanges were in fact eligible.

House Republicans claim that in fact there are 4 million data inconsistencies affecting half of all enrollments. In House Energy and Commerce hearings on June 10, 2014, Republican Representative Charles Bustany Jr. claimed that $44 billion in improper payments would be made over the next 10 years. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Bush Administration official, who testified at the hearings claims that improper payments may equal $152 billion. The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee is holding further hearings on data inconsistencies on July 16.

The seriousness of verification issues should not be overestimated. The administration has been put in place procedures to verify carefully premium tax credit applications. Many of the discrepancies CMS is attempting to resolve do not relate to income eligibility, and those that do may result ultimately in a finding of eligibility for increased, rather than decreased, premium tax credits. A discrepancy that could result in the need for additional documentation may be as trivial as a hyphen left out of a name or a digit transposed on a Social Security number.

Unfortunately, programs proposed by Republicans and other ACA opponents that in fact make a serious attempt to cover the uninsured will require income reporting and face similar difficulties. Current reform proposals that avoid coverage eligibility determinations will not in fact cover the uninsured. While the administration could have perhaps done a better job in making eligibility determinations, any means-tested program faces a similar challenge. It is possible to design a system that does not rely on means testing and could cover low-income and high-cost uninsured Americans, as I describe below. But it would be a very different system than the ACA or alternatives currently being proposed.

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Implementing Health Reform: A Follow-Up Supreme Court Contraceptives Decision At Odds With Hobby Lobby


July 4th, 2014

On July 3, 2014, the Supreme Court decided its second contraceptive case of the 2013-2014 term, Wheaton College v. Burwell. The decision demonstrates why more Americans now believe that the justices are doing a poor job (27 percent) than believe they are doing an excellent or good job (26 percent combined), and why 76 percent of Americans believe that the justices decides cases based on their own personal and political opinions rather than legal analysis.

The Wheaton College decision seems to contradict directly the Hobby Lobby decision the Court had entered three days earlier. The Court offered virtually no justification for its change of position. Indeed, one wonders whether the men on the Court, in their haste to get out of town even bothered to read the scathing but well-reasoned dissent filed by Justice Sotomayor for the women of the Court, with which they did not engage.

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After Hobby Lobby: How Might Policymakers Mitigate The Decision’s Impact On Women And Families?


July 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Sara Rosenbaum, Adam Sonfield and Rachel Benson Gold also coauthored this post. 

On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that has the potential to undermine an important provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that establishes for women a federal guarantee of coverage for their full range of contraceptive methods, services, and counseling without any out-of-pocket costs. This guarantee is administered through private health plans, whether purchased in the individual market or made available through the insurers and plan administrators that provide group coverage.

The 5-4 ruling in Burrell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, written by Justice Samuel Alito on behalf of the Court’s conservative bloc, held that closely held for-profit corporations that assert a religious objection to some or all forms of contraception cannot be required to include such coverage in the health plans they sponsor for employees and their families. As emphasized by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissent (joined in whole by Justice Sotomayor and in part by Justices Kagan and Breyer), the Court’s decision could have serious and widespread consequences.

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