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New On GrantWatch Blog


November 21st, 2014

Health Affairs GrantWatch Blog brings you news and views of what foundations are funding in health policy and health care.

Here are the most recent posts:

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Challenges For People With Disabilities Within The Health Care Safety Net


November 18th, 2014

Medicare and Medicaid were passed to serve as safety nets for the country’s most vulnerable populations, a point that has been reemphasized by the expansion of the populations they serve, especially with regards to Medicaid. Yet, even after 50 years, the disabled population continues to be one whose health care needs are not being met. This community is all too frequently left to suffer health disparities due to cultural incompetency, stigma and misunderstanding, and an inability to create policy changes that cover the population as a whole and their acute and long-term needs.

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Analysis Of Medicare Spending Slowdown Leads Health Affairs Blog October Most-Read List


November 17th, 2014

Loren Adler and Adam Rosenberg’s examination of the causes of slower Medicare spending growth was the most-read Health Affairs Blog post in October. Their post was followed by Jeff Goldsmith’s interview with former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson.

Next on the top-ten list was J. Stephen Morrison’s look at the US response to Ebola and the role of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden, followed by Tim Jost’s post on reference pricing and network adequacy.

The full list is below:

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How Consumers Might Game The 90-Day Grace Period And What Can Be Done About It


November 17th, 2014

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), individuals receiving a federal subsidy are entitled to a three-month premium nonpayment grace period. As long as such an individual has paid at least the first month’s premium of the year, in any subsequent month the individual has three months to make the premium payment before coverage is terminated.

The grace period has obvious benefits for consumers, yet as a recent Health Affairs Health Policy Brief describes, this provision of the law has created significant apprehension among doctors and other health care providers who worry they will go unpaid when coverage is retroactively terminated for their patients. Unfortunately, as we explain here, this provision could have even broader adverse implications for the health care system.

The grace period law could encourage subsidized individuals to regularly pay only nine months of premiums and receive, in effect, twelve months of coverage. Should this gaming become widespread it could increase premiums (perhaps by as much as several percentage points) for everyone who purchases coverage in the individual (non-group) exchanges.

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Implementing Health Reform: Setting The Stage For 2015 Open Enrollment


November 16th, 2014

On November 15, 2014, the Affordable Care Act marketplaces reopened for 2015 enrollment, the second year of ACA coverage.  On November 14, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Office of Personnel Management released guidance and reports laying the groundwork for the second year.  This post covers these and notes briefly a couple of ACA court decisions that also came down on November 14.

Plan data release.  CMS released a number of data files containing information on plans available on the marketplaces for 2015 and their rates.  First, the release includes “landscape files” including plans available by county along with premium and cost-sharing data for selected scenarios and services for the 2015 plan year for the federally facilitated marketplace and federally facilitated SHOP.

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Risk And Reform Of Long-Term Care


November 14th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts stemming from presentations given at “The Law of Medicare and Medicaid at Fifty,” a conference held at Yale Law School on November 6 and 7.

The 50th Anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid offers an opportunity to reflect on how U.S. social policy has conceived of the problem of long-term care.

Social insurance programs aim to create greater security—typically financial security—for American families (See Note 1). Programs for long-term care, however, have had mixed results. The most recent attempt at reform, which Ted Kennedy ushered through as a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), called the CLASS Act, was actuarially unsound and later repealed. Medicare and especially Medicaid, the two primary government programs to address long-term care needs, are criticized for failing to meet the needs of people with a disability or illness, who need long-term services or supports. These critiques are valid.

Even more troublesome, however, long-term care policy, especially in its most recent evolution toward home-based care, has intensified a second type of insecurity for Americans. This insecurity arises when someone becomes responsible for the long-term care of a loved one. In a longer forthcoming article, I argue that this insecurity—which I call “next-friend risk”—poses a serious threat to Americans and needs to be addressed. (I borrow the phrase next friend from a legal term for a person who in litigation represents someone with a disability who is otherwise unable to represent him or herself. Although not a legal guardian, the next friend protects the interests of an incompetent person.)

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High Quality, Affordable Care: Making The Case For Smarter Networks


November 13th, 2014

Narrow networks are one means health insurance plans have used to mitigate increases in health insurance premiums. These networks have become more prevalent since the expansion of coverage brought about by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But these narrow networks have given rise to complaints that consumers are being denied access to, and choice of, providers. These complaints are causing policymakers to consider, and in some cases adopt, new laws and regulations on network adequacy.

In the following blog post, I argue that policymakers should consider that there are different types of narrow networks and should be careful not to adopt policies that inhibit new contractual arrangements among payers, providers, and hospitals, such as Accountable Care Organizations, which hold the promise of better quality care at lower cost. At the same time, issuers must provide accurate and current information on which hospitals and providers are in the network and are accepting new patients, and must make the case that smarter networks can lead to better outcomes at lower cost.

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The Short-Term And Long-Term Outlook Of Drug Coupons


November 12th, 2014

In the October 2014 Health Affairs article, “Specialty Drug Coupons Lower Out-Of-Pocket Costs And May Improve Adherence At The Risk Of Increasing Premiums,” Catherine Starner and coauthors explore the relationship between drug coupons and specialty drugs. Specialty drugs, primarily injectables and biologics, are costly drugs used to treat complicated, chronic conditions that typically require special handling, administration, and monitoring. Starner et al. report that specialty drugs have an average monthly cost to patients and payers of about $3,500.

In their innovative study, Starner et al. find that nearly half of the patients in their sample who were prescribed specialty drugs used personal drug coupons to reduce their personal financial responsibilities. Coupons come in the form of maximum copay and monthly savings cards, and can be accessed from the brand-name manufacturer’s website, printed out, and cashed in at the pharmacy.

Manufacturers promote drug coupons as supplementary patient assistance programs that can fill gaps in insurance coverage by reducing individual patients’ responsibilities for out-of-pocket health care costs related to high-cost specialty drugs or other pharmaceutical products. For example, patients taking etanercept (Enbrel), an expensive biologic specialty drug indicated for rheumatoid arthritis, can receive savings via the Enbrel Support plan, which reduces the monthly co-pay to $0 for the first six months and $10 per month thereafter.

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Implementing Health Reform: New HHS 2015 Marketplace Enrollment Estimates


November 11th, 2014

On November 10, 2014, the HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) released an estimate of “How Many Individuals Might Have Marketplace Coverage After the 2015 Open Enrollment Period.”  ASPE estimates that 9.1 to 9.9 million will be enrolled, substantially lower than the 13 million enrollee estimate the Congressional Budget Office issued in the Spring of 2014.

Both the ASPE and CBO estimates see the marketplaces as eventually covering 24 to 25 million people.  But while CBO projected that the marketplaces would reach this number in 3 years, ASPE believes that a 4 to 5 year ramp-up period is more realistic based on the launch experience of other programs, like Medicaid and CHIP.

Examining the numbers.  The marketplaces enrolled 8.1 million individuals during the 2014 open enrollment period.  The ASPE brief states that 7.1 million were still enrolled as of October of 2014.  It is not clear whether or not this number includes 112,000 individuals that HHS recently announced have been dropped from the marketplaces because they failed adequately to document their immigration or citizenship status.  HHS has also announced that another 105,000 individuals will have their financial eligibility determined on data available to HHS (in most instances 2012 tax returns), because they failed to document the income levels they claimed on their applications.  These individuals will not lose coverage, but may receive smaller tax credits.

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New Health Policy Brief: The Family Glitch


November 10th, 2014

A new health policy brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) looks at the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) so-called family glitch. Low-to-moderate-income families are eligible for a subsidy to purchase health insurance on the Marketplace if the cost of health coverage through their employers is more than 9.5 percent of their household income.

However, this formula is based on individual-only coverage and does not account for the higher cost of a family insurance plan. If the family glitch is not fixed, the path to affordable insurance for many spouses and children could be blocked—and children could be even further impacted if Congress fails to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) after the current appropriation ends in September 2015, which the brief also explains.

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Health Insurance Without An Annual Expiration Date? A Case For Exchange-Based Long-Term Policies


November 10th, 2014

Today, consumers make decisions every year about whether to renew or change health plans. Exchange-based multi-year plans would have to overcome significant obstacles before they become reality, but they hold the potential for helping the United States move toward goals of a healthier society and a more efficient health care system.

Since the launch of the federal and state health insurance exchanges in October 2013, set up to facilitate the purchase of insurance in line with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), millions of Americans have obtained coverage. In addition, several large employers, such as Sears and Walgreens, have announced that they will stop offering coverage and instead provide a defined contribution for their employees to purchase coverage on an exchange.

The growing role of exchanges, their price transparency, and the increasing share of the cost of coverage borne by enrollees is likely to make consumers pay increased attention to price. Price-sensitive buyers could encourage competition and thus efficiency. But there might be unintended consequences. Consumers might deliberately choose low-cost plans with limited benefits when they are healthy, knowing that the ACA allows them to purchase a more generous plan should they develop a chronic disease. The possibility of changing health plans when becoming sick might exacerbate the self-selection problem in the insurance market because the public exchanges allow only limited risk adjustment based on such factors as age, family composition, rating area, and tobacco use.

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Implementing Health Reform: Defining Group Health Plans And More


November 9th, 2014

A primary goal of the Affordable Care Act is to extend individual health insurance coverage through the exchanges and the premium tax credits to Americans who would otherwise be uninsured.  But most working-age Americans and their families remain insured through employer-sponsored group coverage. While seeking to expand individual coverage, therefore, the ACA also attempts to preserve group coverage.

Employers and those who advise employers have, however, sought to break down the barrier between group and individual coverage. That is, they have tried to figure out how employers can subsidize individual coverage for their employees rather than provide group coverage.  If this were possible, employers could assist their employees to secure coverage while avoiding the burden of operating a group health plan.  Employees might be able to simultaneously receive the benefits of employer contributions and of premium tax credits.  It might even be possible for employers to shunt off their high-cost employees with poor health status to the exchanges, where they would be charged community-rated premiums, while keeping healthy employees in a group plan, which would likely receive a favorable rate based on claims experience.

In earlier guidances, the Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services clarified that employer health care arrangements, such as health reimbursement accounts and employer payment plans, are group health plans subject to the group market reforms of the ACA, including the prohibition of annual limits or the requirement to cover certain preventive services.  Such arrangements must therefore be integrated with a group health plan that meets these requirements, therefore, to comply with the law.  They cannot be integrated with individual policies and comply with the law.

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Implementing Health Reform: Supreme Court Will Review Tax Credits In Federal Exchanges


November 7th, 2014

On November 7, 2014, the Supreme Court granted certiorari (review) in King v. Burwell, one of the cases involving the question of whether federally-facilitated marketplaces can grant premium tax credits.  The Fourth Circuit in King had upheld the Internal Revenue Service rule allowing FFMs to grant premium tax credits.  A panel of the District of Columbia Circuit had decided the same day that only state-operated exchanges could grant tax credits; however, that decision was vacated by the D.C. Circuit when it decided to rehear the case as a whole, so at the time the Supreme Court accepted certiorari, King was the only circuit court decision in effect, and that upholding the rule.

The challenge to the IRS rule is based on the wording of the provision of the ACA that authorizes premium tax credits, which refers to enrollment “in through an Exchange established by the State.”  The plaintiffs in King argue that this means that only state-operated exchanges can grant premium tax credits.

The government responds that this is an incorrect reading of the statute, which recognizes FFMs as the state-established exchange in states that elect not to establish a state exchange.  This is certainly the way that the members of Congress who wrote the legislation and the states that elected not to operate their own exchange understood the legislation.

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Tax Filing And The ACA: Helping Americans Meet The Challenge


November 7th, 2014

Tim Jost’s post of September 21, 2014 expressed concern about the problems that Americans who are uninsured or who have received or qualify for premium tax credits will face in filing their taxes for 2014.  Those who are not otherwise insured and who wish to claim an exemption from the shared responsibility penalty will have to file tax form 8965.  Those who received advance premium tax credits during 2014 will have to file a form 8962, as will those who did not receive advance premium tax credits but who wish to claim premium tax credits on their tax return.  Tax filers who fail to reconcile their tax credits for 2014 cannot claim tax credits for subsequent years.

Individuals who did not have coverage at the beginning of 2014, but purchased coverage at some point in the year through the marketplaces, may need to file both forms.  For example, victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment were granted a special enrollment period part of the way through 2014 and will have to file an 8965 for the months they were uninsured before they enrolled and an 8962 for months after they enrolled.

This post offers suggestions as to how the Internal Revenue Service and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the two agencies that oversee the shared responsibility and premium tax credit programs, might mitigate the problems that tax filers may face in filing their taxes for 2014.

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Yes, We Can Transcend Obamacare


November 6th, 2014

In a recent  Health Affairs Blog post, Washington and Lee University law professor Timothy Jost described a new health-reform plan designed by one of us (Roy) and fiscally modeled by the other (Parente) as a “serious proposal [that] deserves to be taken seriously.” Jost praises parts of the plan. Most notably, he writes that its suggested reform of Medicaid “makes a lot of sense and is similar to proposals made earlier by progressive commentators,” and describes its aim of enacting a uniform annual deductible for Medicare as a “common sense proposal.”

But much of Jost’s review is filled with ideological pique—there are various harrumphs about “nostrums” and “talking points” and “hobby horses.” His article contains some factual and analytical inaccuracies, but also a few good points worth discussing.

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Social Insurance Is Missing A Piece: Medicare, Medicaid, And Long-term Care


November 6th, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the first of several periodic posts stemming from presentations to be given at “The Law of Medicare and Medicaid at Fifty,” a conference that will be held at Yale Law School on November 6 and 7. The issues covered in this post and in Professor Feder’s presentation at the conference will be more fully treated in Feder J. “The Missing Piece:  Medicare, Medicaid and Long-Term Care,” in Cohen AB, Colby DC, Wailoo KA, Zelizer JE, eds. Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America’s Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care. New York: Oxford, 2015.

Medicare and Medicaid are partners in providing health insurance protection to older people and people with disabilities. But when it comes to helping the very same people with long-term care—assistance with the basic tasks of daily life (like bathing, eating and toileting)—no such partnership exists.  Instead, there’s a gaping hole in protection that leaves people who need care, along with their families, at risk of catastrophe.

That hole is not an accident.  From Medicare’s inception, long-term care was explicitly excluded from its social insurance benefits, despite the close tie of many long-term care needs to medical conditions.  With some short-lived lapses, Medicare rules have restricted the program’s benefits to avoid financing long-term care, even as it has overpaid long-term care providers for medically-related “post-acute” services. Ironically, Medicare has fueled growth in expenditures on long-term care providers without actually covering long-term care.

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An Emerging Consensus: Medicare Advantage Is Working And Can Deliver Meaningful Reform


November 6th, 2014

Since enactment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, much of the attention in the policy community has been on modernizing Medicare’s traditional fee-for-service (FFS) program.  Through Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), larger “bundles” of payments to fee-for-service providers for episodes of care, and tests of pay-for-performance models, the hope is that the traditional Medicare model can be remade through sheer force of bureaucratic will.  The stated intent is to find a way to pay for value, not volume.

These efforts may or may not bear much fruit, but, over the longer term, it’s not likely to matter much.  That’s because a more important transformation of Medicare is already well underway and is occurring despite more resistance than assistance from the program’s bureaucracy.  According to the 2014 Medicare Trustees’ report, enrollment in Medicare Advantage – the private plan option in Medicare — has been surging for a decade.  In 2005 there were 5.8 million Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in MA plans — 13.6 percent of total enrollment in the program.  Today, there are 16.2 million beneficiaries in MA plans, or 30 percent of program enrollment. (See Table IV.C1)  In addition, the Medicare drug benefit, which constitutes about 12 percent of total program spending, is delivered entirely through private plans. (See Table II.B1)

As MA enrollment has surged, so has recognition of its improved value.  A recent, comprehensive review of the evidence conducted by Joseph Newhouse and Thomas McGuire of Harvard University makes a compelling case that MA plans are providing higher value services at less societal cost than the traditional FFS program.  Based on their findings, Newhouse and McGuire argue for policies that would provide incentives for even more beneficiaries to enroll in MA plans in the future.

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Implementing Health Reform: ‘Minimum Value’ Plans Must Have Hospital And Physician Coverage


November 4th, 2014

“Minimum value” is an important concept under the Affordable Care Act.  An employee who is offered employer-sponsored health plan that is affordable (that is, does not cost the employee more than 9.5 percent of the employee’s modified adjusted gross household income) and offers minimum value (MV), is not eligible for premium tax credits or cost-sharing reduction payments.  A large employer that fails to offer its full-time employees an affordable health plan that provides MV is subject to a penalty of $3,000 for each full-time employee who receives premium tax credits through the exchanges.

Yet MV is not clearly defined in the ACA.  The ACA provides that a plan does not offer MV if the “plan’s share of the total allowed costs of benefits provided under the plan is less than 60 percent of such costs.”  It is not clear what is meant, however, by “benefits provided under the plan.”  It does not seem to mean that a plan must be the equivalent of a 60 percent actuarial value bronze plan in the individual and insured small-group market, because individual and insured small-group plans must cover the ten essential health benefits, and large-group plans are not required to do so.

MV cannot mean, however, that an employer can simply pay for 60 percent of the cost of whatever benefits the employer chooses to offer, no matter how minimal those benefits may be.  MV is quite obviously something more than “minimum essential coverage,” the “skinny benefit plans” which employers may offer to avoid the separate $2,000 for-every-full-time employee penalty.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Benefit And Network Design Strategies To Complement Payment Reform


November 4th, 2014

For the past ten months on Health Affairs Blog, we’ve been discussing the evidence for different models of payment reform, examining everything from pay for performance to nonpayment. But no discussion of payment reform is complete without addressing benefit and network designs and how they can help or hinder various payment reforms.  When the right payment method is paired with the right benefit and/or network design, they can work together to help reduce costs and improve care.  There are a number of payment approaches that pair well with specific benefit and network design strategies to yield higher-quality, lower-cost care. Below we discuss a few of these effective pairings.

But before we get into the specifics, why it is important to motivate providers to deliver and patients to seek higher-value care?  Health care providers may not only respond to direct financial incentives, but they are also likely to respond to knowing information about their performance is being put in front of prospective and current patients.  They also may be more willing to accept new forms of payment if acceptance means payers will encourage more patients to seek their care.

On the flip side, patients are unlikely to know how their providers are paid.  But if motivated (financially and otherwise), patients may act on meaningful distinctions in price and quality by choosing higher-value providers, saving money for themselves and whoever else is footing the bill for their care.

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Adult Conversation On High-Priced Drugs? Don’t Hold Your Breath (But Hang In There) …


October 27th, 2014

The benevolent identity of the health care enterprise tends to moderate disagreements and keep them under a big tent of shared goals. In the case of very high prices for powerful new drugs, however, the commons gets stretched painfully thin. Drug companies which see themselves as pioneers are accused of being merely greedy. Cost-conscious payers and regulators are impugned for depriving patients of life-conserving treatment breakthroughs. A divisive political undercurrent often threatens to obtrude. Altogether, a tough environment for rational policy assessment.

Credit is due, accordingly, to the Brookings Institution, for putting a wide array of views on display at its October 1 forum on “the cost and value of biomedical innovation,” which was jointly sponsored by the Schaeffer Center at the University of Southern California. With the head of Gilead Sciences at one pole of the discussion and a leading generics industry attorney at the other, the discussion didn’t lack for strongly-held views, strongly stated.

But the tone was civil, a lot of useful information was exchanged, and the audience went away carrying a meta-message about the importance of maintaining an “adult conversation” on a subject of such obvious importance and difficulty.

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