Why does it cost $32,093 just to give birth in America?

Our company receives many inquiries like this. Stella had approached us last April, emotionally distraught over the thousands of dollars in medical bills she was receiving related to the premature birth of her triplets. One of our expert medical billing advocates was assigned to take her case. She was very happy with the favorable outcome (a reduction in her final balance by an incredible amount), and so were we. Like Stella, we may be able to help you too. 

The US is the most expensive nation in the world in which to have a baby – and it may factor into thousands of bankruptcies each year.

Tue 16 Jan 2018

Jessica Glenza in New York – The Guardian

Stella Apo

Stella Apo Osae-Twum and her husband did everything by the book. They went to a hospital covered by insurance, saw an obstetrician in their plan, but when her three sons – triplets – were born prematurely, bills started rolling in.

The hospital charged her family $877,000 in total.

“When the bills started coming, to be very honest, I was an emotional wreck,” said Apo Osae-Twum. “And this is in the midst of trying to take care of three babies who were premature.”

America is the most expensive nation in the world to give birth. When things go wrong – – from preeclampsia to premature birth – costs can quickly spiral into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the data is limited, experts in medical debt say the costs of childbirth factor into thousands of family bankruptcies in America each year.

It’s nearly impossible to put a price tag on giving birth in America, since costs vary dramatically by state and hospital. But one 2013 study by the advocacy group Childbirth Connection found that, on average, hospitals charged $32,093 for an uncomplicated vaginal birth and newborn care, and $51,125 for a standard caesarean section and newborn care. Insurance typically covers a large chunk of those costs, but families are still often on the hook for thousands of dollars.

Another estimate from the International Federation of Health Plans put average charges for vaginal birth in the US at $10,808 in 2015, but that estimate excludes newborn care and other related medical services. That is quintuple the IFHP estimate for another industrialized nation, Spain, where it costs $1,950 to deliver a child, and the cost is covered by the government.

Even the luxurious accommodations provided to the Duchess of Cambridge for the birth of the royal family’s daughter Princess Charlotte – believed to have cost up to $18,000 – were cheaper than many average births in America.

Despite these high costs, the US consistently ranks poorly in health outcomes for mothers and infants. The US rate of infant mortality is 6.1 for every 1,000 live births, higher than Slovakia and Hungary, and nearly three times the rate of Japan and Finland. The US also has the worst rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. That means America is simultaneously the most expensive and one of the riskiest industrialized nations in which to have children.

American families rarely shoulder the full costs of childbirth on their own – but still pay far more than in other industrialized nations. Nearly half of American mothers are covered by Medicaid, a program available to low income households that covers nearly all birth costs. But people with private insurance still regularly pay thousands of dollars in co-pays, deductibles and partially reimbursed services when they give birth. Childbirth Connection put the average out of pocket childbirth costs for mothers with insurance at $3,400 in 2013.

In Apo Osae-Twum’s case, private insurance covered most of the $877,000 bill, but her family was responsible for $51,000.

Apo Osae-Twum was the victim of what is called “surprise billing”. In these cases, patients have no way of knowing whether an ambulance company, emergency room physician, anesthesiologist – or, in her case, a half dozen neonatologists – are members of the patient’s insurance plan.

Even though Apo Osae-Twum went to a hospital covered by her insurance, none of the neonatologists who attended to her sons were “in-network”. Therefore the insurance reimbursed far less of their bills.

There are few studies that estimate the number of families who go bankrupt from this type of unexpected expense. One of the best estimates is now outdated – conducted 10 years ago. But one of the authors of that research, Dr Steffie Woolhandler, estimates as many as 56,000 families each year still go bankrupt from adding a new family member through birth or adoption.

“Why any society should let anyone be bankrupted by medical bills is beyond me, frankly,” said Woolhandler. “It just doesn’t happen in other western democracies.”

Since Woolhandler conducted that research in 2007, 20 million Americans gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act health reform law, and consumer protections were added for pregnant women. But Republicans and the Trump administration have pledged to repeal these consumer protections.

“People face a double whammy when they’re faced with a medical condition,” said Woolhandler. Bankruptcy is often, “the combined effect of medical bills and the need to take time off work”.

There is no nationwide law that provides paid family leave in the US, meaning most families forego income to have a child.

And although childbirth is one of the most common hospital procedures in the nation, prices are completely opaque. That means Americans don’t know how much a birth will cost in advance.

Dr Renee Hsia, an emergency department physician at the University of California San Francisco and a health policy expert likened the experience to buying a car, but not knowing whether the dealership sells Fords or Lamborghinis. “You don’t know, are you going to have a complication that is a lot more expensive? And is it going to be financially ruinous?”

According to Hsia’s 2013 study, a “California woman could be charged as little as $3,296 or as much as $37,227 for a vaginal delivery, and $8,312 to $70,908 for a caesarean section, depending on which hospital she was admitted to.”

Apo Osae-Twum and her family only found relief after a professional medical billing advocate agreed to take their case. Medical Cost Advocate in New Jersey, where Derek Fitteron is CEO, negotiated with doctors to lower the charges to $1,300.

“This is why people are scared to go to the doctor, why they go bankrupt, and why they forego other things to get care from their kids,” said Hsia. “I find it heartbreaking when patients say… ‘How much does this cost?’

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/16/why-does-it-cost-32093-just-to-give-birth-in-america?CMP=fb_gu

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Changes to the Affordable Care Act

This week President Trump made the first move to begin the replacement of the Affordable Care Act. By issuing this executive order, this will drive immediate compliance. However, it will touch off reactions from all healthcare stakeholders including patients, providers, insurers, employers and the government. No matter which side of the political aisle you sit on, be prepared. The coming changes to the Affordable Care Act will require cooperation and compromise not seen from Washington in many years. It should be an interesting year for healthcare in 2018.

By John Tozzi and Zachary Tracer, Bloomberg

‎October‎ ‎13‎, ‎2017‎
The Trump administration is cutting tens of millions of dollars from organizations that help Americans enroll in Obamacare health plans, leaving some of the groups scrambling to shrink their operations weeks before enrollment for 2018 coverage opens on Nov. 1.
The organizations, called navigators, say the funding cuts have been arbitrary, opaque and don’t follow the Trump administration’s stated method for calculating the reductions. The groups had been counting on money for the final year of a three-year grant program, and most didn’t learn how deep the cuts would be until after last year’s funding expired on Sept. 1.
When the Trump administration announced in late August that it would make the reductions, it said they would hold inefficient groups accountable and navigators that met prior enrollment goals would maintain funding.
Navigator groups say it hasn’t worked out that way.
Catherine Edwards, the executive director of the Missouri Association of Area Agencies on Aging, said her group helped 3,945 people last year sign up for health insurance, exceeding their goal. Their grant was cut 62 percent, to $349,251, from $919,902.
“This administration has been doing everything it can to make sure the Affordable Care Act fails,” Edwards said. “They’re tying our hands behind our back to make sure this does fail.”
Edwards’ group had to cut enrollment help and advertising, and will field 52 navigators this year, down from 72, leaving some rural parts of the state without any enrollment assisters.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services declined to provide data on navigator groups’ performance or to explain why some organizations that appeared to meet their goals were cut.
Trump’s Dismantling
Navigators focus on enrolling people with complex family or financial situations, and offer in-person assistance to those who have trouble enrolling online because of language barriers or lack of internet access. Some groups serve ethnic enclaves or vulnerable communities unreached by broader marketing campaigns.
The cuts are likely to hit rural areas the hardest, potentially depressing enrollment in parts of the country where insurers have already pulled back.
President Donald Trump, having watched Republicans in Congress fail to repeal the Affordable Care Act, has taken aim at the law using regulations and executive actions. On Thursday, Trump signed an executive order mean to make it easier for people to buy insurance that doesn’t meet the ACA’s standards, potentially drawing healthy people out of the ACA market. Late that evening, the administration said it would stop making subsidy payments to insurers that help lower-income people afford co-pays and other cost-sharing.
“We’re starting that process” of repeal and replace, Trump said at the White House Thursday.
The administration has also slashed advertising for Obamacare signups by 90 percent, and plans to take down the healthcare.gov website for maintenance periods in the middle of the season. Premiums for next year are rising as insurers say they’re uncertain about the law’s future.
A Nationwide Pattern
What happened to Edwards’ group in Missouri has happened around the country.
Covering Wisconsin, the larger of two navigator programs in that state, enrolled 2,287 people in private health plans and another 1,370 people in Medicaid last year, exceeding targets for both, director Donna Friedsam said in an email. Its funding was cut from to $576,197 this year, from $998,960 last year, a 42 percent reduction. As a result, its navigators won’t be in 11 of the 23 counties it served over the last year.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks, the primary navigator in the state, helped nearly 9,000 Ohioans enroll in private plans and another 35,000 apply for Medicaid since 2013. The group “met, nearly met, or exceeded” goals for four years, said executive director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt. Despite that, funding was cut by 71 percent, to $485,000, from $1.7 million.
The funding cuts seem like sabotage, not accountability, Hamler-Fugitt said. Her group closed its navigator program and let most of its staff go rather than try to sustain it at the lower funding level.
“If we were such poor performers, why were we not notified and corrective action taken? Because we weren’t,” she said.
Smaller and Sicker
Along with the navigator cuts and other regulatory moves, confusion over Obamacare’s fate will likely lead to “a smaller, sicker group of enrollees,” said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute.
Customers who don’t shop around for coverage could “have huge sticker shock” if they do nothing and are automatically re-enrolled in their current plans, Corlette said.
The navigator grants are funded by a levy on health plans in the insurance marketplaces, which benefit from the marketing and outreach. Trump administration officials didn’t respond to questions about how unspent fees would be used.
Cut at the Last Minute
The Trump administration said in August that it would cut funding to the navigators by 39 percent, down from $62.5 million the last enrollment period. The cuts apply only to states that have health-care markets run by the federal government — 16 operate their own.
They were announced just days before the new grants were supposed to begin. The agency had affirmed grant amounts earlier in the year.
“All indications were everything was going very well,” said Allen Gjersvig, director of navigator and enrollment services at the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers. Staff at CMS told the group as late as Aug. 28 that the funding was on track, he said. Days later, the Alliance’s navigator grant was cut from about $1.1 million to $700,000.
His confusion isn’t unique. Of the 48 navigator programs that responded to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, about half said no rationale was provided, and another 40 percent said the explanation was “very or somewhat unclear.”
The Palmetto Project in South Carolina had its navigator grant cut from $1.1 million to $500,000, and will have 30 navigators instead of the 62 it planned on, said Shelli Quenga, the organization’s director of programs. It plans to leave some rural areas without in-person help.
“I think there will be people who choose poorly,” Quenga said. “There will also be people who just give up.”

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Three States Where Obamacare Premiums May Rise More Than 50% in 2018

As of this writing, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, still remains the law of the land, despite efforts to repeal and replace it. The uncertainty about where this is headed has created uncertainty in the marketplace and thus rising prices. There are 3 states where Obamacare premiums may rise more than 50% in 2018 including New York, Georgia, and Maryland. The reasons for this premium increase are enumerated in the article below. Is this a sign of things to come in 2018? Medical Cost Advocate can help you navigate our complex health care system and find the insurance plan that best suits your needs.

By Sean Williams, Aug 26, 2017

Despite President Trump having been in office for more than seven months now and Republicans retaining control of both houses of Congress, the Affordable Care Act, which is best known as Obamacare, remains the health law of the land.

The hallmark legislation signed into law by former President Barack Obama in March 2010 has taken care of its primary goal of reducing the uninsured rate. Between late 2013 and mid-2016, we witnessed the aggregate uninsured rate fall from 16% to around 9%, representing an all-time low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, Obamacare has also been a relatively unpopular law since its inception. Until recently, when Republicans tried unsuccessfully on numerous occasions to repeal and replace Obamacare, you could easily count on two hands just how many months over the past six-plus years that Obamacare had more “favorable” views than “unfavorable” when it came to Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Tracking poll. Most Americans never really cared for the individual mandate, which required them to purchase health insurance, and they certainly disliked the Shared Responsibility Payment, which required them to pay a penalty if they didn’t purchase health insurance.

Nevertheless, rate requests have been submitted by insurance companies in nearly every state, and we’re heading into 2018 with the strong likelihood that Obamacare will remain law.

President Trump threatens to go nuclear on Obamacare

Of course, that doesn’t mean President Trump has to like what’s transpired.

The Commander in Chief has suggested that if Congress doesn’t get its act together and repeal Obamacare, he’d consider going nuclear and withholding cost-sharing reductions in order to topple the program. Cost-sharing reductions, or CSRs, are the subsidies paid to lower-income individuals and families making between 100% and 250% of the federal poverty level, and they help cover the costs of heading to the doctor (e.g., copays, deductibles, and coinsurance). More than 7 million people enrolled via Obamacare’s marketplace exchanges qualified for CSRs in 2017. Without CSRs, lower-income folks would have health insurance but would probably be unable to afford the copay and deductible costs of being seen by a doctor.

This all ties back to a 2014 lawsuit filed by the House Republicans against Sylvia Burwell, who at the time was the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The GOP argued that only Congress has the right to apportion federal funding, which in this case meant approving funds for CSR payments. Since these subsidies weren’t getting the alleged proper approval, Republicans sued. In May 2016, they won; however, Judge Rosemary Collyer stayed her order, given the likelihood of an appeal from the Obama administration, which did come in. That appeal remains in place today, though Trump has appointed Tom Price as the new HHS secretary. All Donald Trump would have to do is drop the appeal of the case, and Collyer’s order would halt further CSR payments to insurers and low-income individuals and families.

Insurers, not knowing what will happen, have been requesting significant rate hikes to take into account both adverse selection (i.e., getting more sick enrollees than expected) and the possibility that these CSR subsidies could be taken away, in which case members may not be able to pay their medical bills. According to ACASignUps.net, which has aggregated price request data for nearly every state, the average rate hike request if CSRs remain in place is almost 16% in 2018, while premiums could jump by an average of 30% if CSRs are taken away.

Three states with possibly the highest average rate-hike requests

As in years past, we’ve seen a wide variance of rate requests. Alaska, which is known for having the highest monthly premiums, could see premiums drop by an average of 30% to 22% next year, simply depending on whether or not CSRs are kept or taken away. The drop is thanks to a new reinsurance program within the state.

Oklahoma could also see premiums fall by 1.9% in 2018 if CSRs are paid, or rise by an average of 8.7% if they aren’t. While good news on the surface, it’s little consolation considering the 76% that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma hiked rates in 2017.

At the other end of the spectrum, three states could be in line to hike premiums by more than 50% if CSRs don’t get paid. Please note the emphasis on that “if,” because it could mean significantly more money flowing out of the pockets of unsubsidized Americans come 2018 if CSRs get taken away.

These states are:

  1. New York: According to published rate requests in early June from the Department of Financial Services, insurers in the Empire State are requesting an average hike of 16.6% if the CSRs remain. This comes on top of the average 18% rate hike they requested last year. However, ACASignUps.net has New York pegged for an average weighted rate hike of up to 50.5% should CSRs be taken away. Last year, regulators only managed to lower New York insurers’ rate-hike request to 16.6% from 18%, so there’s little hope of much solace for New Yorkers on Obamacare in the coming year. Insurers provided little info on what’s driving their double-digit rate-hike requests, but it’s believed to be uncertainty stemming from future CSR payments.
  2. Georgia: The Peach State is another that could be facing some very extreme premium increases should CSRs be taken away by President Trump. The weighted average rate hike for Georgia, inclusive of CSRs, is already a whopping 29.2%. However, if those CSRs aren’t there, Georgians could see premiums spike higher by a weighted average of 52.2%. Feel free to point the finger at Anthem (NYSE: ANTM), the largest in-state Obamacare insurer, whose Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia is requesting a rate hike of 40.6% with CSRs continuing to be paid, or 63.6% without them. Anthem is among the biggest beneficiaries of government-sponsored subsidies under Obamacare, and their removal could possibly hurt it more than any other national insurer.
  3. Maryland: Taking the cake with the largest possible average weighted premium increase in 2018 looks to be the Old Line State. Even if CSRs are paid, Maryland’s insurers have requested an average weighted rate hike of 46.1%. However, if CSRs are taken away, this premium increase jumps to a weighted average of 57.1%. Both CareFirst of Maryland and CareFirst Blue Choice requested average rate increases of 58.8% and 50.4%, respectively, with one Cigna plan within the state requesting up to a (I hope you’re sitting down for this) 150.83% increase in 2018 from the previous year. As in numerous states, CSR uncertainty and a need to significantly boost premiums to account for adverse selection are the primary catalysts behind these large rate-hike requests.

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Medical Billing Mistakes to Avoid

We are all busy these days; whether it be the normal requirements of work or trying to get ahead so you can go enjoy that well earned vacation. You are never too busy to take your healthcare billing for granted and just pay. The below article describes three things you can do. Medical Cost Advocate can do all these steps for you and add the rigorous capability of our Healthcare Advocacy Services to manage you billing and insurance ongoing … so you can take that vacation and rest assured your medical bills are being handled by an expert.

3 medical debt mistakes to avoid

Sean Pyles, NerdWallet

Many consumers take their medical bills at face value — and pay the price.

You can limit the hurt by shopping around beforehand, double-checking bills and negotiating your out-of-pocket expenses. Avoid these three mistakes:

  1. Not shopping around

Start by knowing the cost of services. For planned or routine medical expenses, you can ask the billing department to estimate costs. Then shop around if you have a choice of providers.

Resources like New Choice Health and Healthcare Bluebook can show you a price range for services in your area.

  1. Taking your bill at face value

“There’s a large number of people who touch your medical bill when you go to the medical office, from service providers, nurses and office administrators,” says Cheryl Walsh, a medical bill advocate in New York. “Between that, there’s a lot of room for errors for medical bills.”

Medical bills usually have a single total at the bottom. What that doesn’t show are the items, big and small, you’ve been charged for. Request an itemized bill to check for duplications or charges for care you didn’t receive. Compare this with your explanation of benefits to verify your insurer paid what it should.

If you’re overwhelmed, you might need a professional. Medical bill advocates specialize in reducing the amount that people pay. Many give free consultations and charge only if medical bills are reduced, sometimes based on a percentage of savings.

  1. Not negotiating payment options

Negotiating has two parts. First, agree on what you’re going to pay. Then establish how you’ll pay it.

Knowing what others paid can give you leverage, so check the online resources mentioned above. Don’t be afraid to talk to your provider; just prepare by figuring out what you can realistically pay.

“Your job is to say, ‘Look, if you want to be paid, this is what I can afford,’” says Jerry Ashton, co-founder of RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that purchases, then forgives, medical debt. “Never make an agreement you know you can’t uphold.”

If you’re facing out-of-pocket costs you can’t handle, you may be able to:

  • Establish a payment plan: Just as prices vary among doctors, so do payment terms. Often, all you have to do is ask to break the cost into manageable chunks.
  • Ask for a financial hardship plan: Some providers offer these to low-income patients. Eligibility varies, and you may have to apply for Medicaid before being eligible.
  • Negotiate: You may be able to settle for less than you owe, especially if your bill is in collections.
  • Consider debt relief: If your debt is more than half your annual income and you see no way to pay it off within five years, you may want to consider bankruptcy.

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Healthcare Cost and Complexity Continue to Grow – Insurance Consultation and Claims Advocacy are Better Together in This Healthcare Climate

As we enter a new open enrollment period, companies and individuals are reviewing their health care plans. The litany of regulatory and economic changes in our health care system has created a daunting challenge of navigating less choice and availability, along with higher costs. Add to this the uncertain future health care landscape under a new Trump Administration and the complexity multiplies. Healthcare advocacy services are becoming even more necessary to help families manage the ongoing insurance, billing and navigation issues they will inevitably encounter.

Contributed by Derek Fitteron, CEO Medical Cost Advocate

November 1 marked the beginning of the open enrollment period for many individual insurance plans. Open enrollment is the time when individually insured families must enroll in, or make changes to, their health insurance coverage. The individual insurance market has been largely subsumed by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the State Exchanges in recent years. This year, choice, availability, features and cost have all deteriorated. Many of the largest insurers are withdrawing from the individual marketplace for economic reasons. The resulting plans have narrower networks, higher deductibles, and fewer features; all for a higher price.

The laws of supply and demand do not apply anymore. Wealthy consumers as well as those requiring subsidies must choose from the same underwhelming plans. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York. Aetna has left the market and Health Republic has become insolvent, leaving only Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, United Healthcare and three much smaller companies offering plans. Perhaps most startling, none of the available plans are PPO plans that offer out-of-network benefits.

Consumers clearly need help selecting the best plans among available alternatives, but now more than ever they need assistance optimizing their plans going forward.

Consumers who wish to obtain the best care will go out-of-network in increasing numbers and will be largely “self-pay.” They will be on their own to manage filing, billing and administrative complexity. Medical Cost Advocate is recognizing these issues. To provide more value for clients, we have started bundling Insurance Consultation with Comprehensive Bill and Claims Advocacy. The benefits are clear. We can help clients select the best plan available and manage the ongoing issues they will inevitably face. We review bills, resolve problems, file claims, negotiate reductions and provide advice on how to better utilize these plans. For a nominal fee above an Insurance Consultation alone, consumers can obtain the same consultation plus 3 hours per month of billing advocacy over the entire year.

Our clients are looking for solutions to manage complexity in the changing healthcare system. Medical Cost Advocate is an even more advisable solution for those who want to focus on their health, not insurance and billing.

For more information on how Medical Cost Advocate can help your family/company realize value from healthcare, please click here or call us at (201) 891-8989.

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The Affordable Care Act after Six years

Excellent summary from the Kaiser Family Foundation that clears up some of the confusion around where the Affordable Care Act fits in the overall healthcare system

By Drew Altman, president and chief executive officer of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The Affordable Care Act generates so much partisan heat and draws so much media attention that many people may have lost perspective on where this law fits in the overall health system.

The Affordable Care Act is the most important legislation in health care since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid. The law’s singular achievement is that 20 million people who were previously uninsured have health-care coverage. What sets the ACA apart is not only the progress made in covering the uninsured but also the role the law has played rewriting insurance rules to treat millions of sick people more fairly and its provisions reforming provider payment under Medicare. The latter is getting attention throughout the health system.

Still, while the ACA expands coverage and has changed pieces of the health system–including previously dysfunctional aspects of the individual insurance market–it did not attempt to reform the entire health-care system. Medicare, Medicaid, and the employer-based health insurance system each cover many more people. Consider:

Some 12.7 million people have signed up for coverage in the ACA marketplaces, and enrollment in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program has increased by 14.5 million from pre-ACA levels, the Department of Health and Human Services noted in December. By contrast, 72 million people are enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP, 55 million in Medicare, and 150 million are covered through the employer-based health insurance system. The latter is where most Americans get their health coverage (Medicare and Medicaid share 10 million beneficiaries covered by both programs). All these forms of coverage have been affected by the ACA but operate largely independent of it.

In one presidential debate the moderator confused premium increases in ACA marketplaces (some of which are high, though the average is moderate) with premium increases in the much larger employer-based system. The tendency to overattribute developments, both good and bad, to the ACA is a product of super-heated debate about the law.

Given what the law actually does, it is not all that surprising that half of Americans say they have not been affected by it. Kaiser Family Foundation polling consistently finds that while the political world focuses on the ACA, the public is more concerned about rising deductibles and drug prices and other changes in the general insurance marketplace that have been developing with less scrutiny while attention has gone to the ACA. With so much published and said about the ACA since 2010, these and other important issues have received less attention from policy makers, the media, and health-care experts.

The ACA could get hotter before it cools. There is a case on contraception coverage under consideration at the Supreme Court–with oral arguments heard Wednesday–and another big debate about the law is likely if a Republican wins the White House in November. Such a debate would probably involve legislation characterized as “repealing” the ACA, though such a bill is more likely to focus on changes that stop short of rolling back the law’s popular coverage expansions and insurance reforms that benefit tens of millions of Americans.

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Surprise Medical Bills

This is an excellent article published by the Kaiser Family Foundation reporting on a survey finding that 7 in 10 individuals with out-of-network bills didn’t know their health care provider was not participating in their plan. Surprise medical bills can contribute significantly to financial burden and medical debt among insured individuals.

By Karen Pollitz, KFF

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey finds that among insured, non-elderly adults struggling with medical bill problems, charges from out-of-network providers were a contributing factor about one-third of the time. Further, nearly 7 in 10 of individuals with unaffordable out-of-network medical bills did not know the health care provider was not in their plan’s network at the time they received care.

“Surprise medical bill” is a term commonly used to describe charges arising when an insured individual inadvertently receives care from an out-of-network provider. This situation could arise in an emergency when the patient has no ability to select the emergency room, treating physicians, or ambulance providers. Surprise medical bills might also arise when a patient receives planned care from an in-network provider (often, a hospital or ambulatory care facility), but other treating providers brought in to participate in the patient’s care are not in the same network. These can include anesthesiologists, radiologists, pathologists, surgical assistants, and others. In some cases, entire departments within an in-network facility may be operated by subcontractors who don’t participate in the same network. In these non-emergency situations, too, the in-network provider or facility generally arranges for the other treating providers, not the patient.

For insured patients, the surprise medical bill can involve two components. The first component reflects the difference in patient cost-sharing between in-network and out-of-network providers. For example, in a managed care plan that provides coverage in- and out-of-network (sometimes called a PPO plan), a patient might owe 20% of allowed charges for in-network services and 40% of allowed charges for out-of-network services. A second component of surprise medical bills is due to “balance billing.” Typically health plans negotiate fee schedules, or allowed charges, with network providers that reflect a discount from providers’ full charges. Network contracts also typically prohibit providers from billing patients the difference between the allowed charge and the full charge. Because out-of-network providers have no such contractual obligation, however, patients can be liable for the balance bill in addition to any cost-sharing that might otherwise apply.

Data on the prevalence of surprise medical bills and costs to consumers are limited. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires health plans in and out of the Marketplace to report data on out-of-network costs to enrollees, though this provision has not yet been implemented. Research studies offer some clues as to the prevalence and cost to patients due to surprise medical bills:

• One national survey found that 8% of privately insured individuals used out-of-network care in 2011; 40% of those claims involved surprise (involuntary) out-of-network claims. This survey found that most surprise medical bills were related to emergency care.

• In 2011, the New York Department of Financial Services studied more than 2,000 complaints involving surprise medical bills, and found the average out-of-network emergency bill was $7,006. Insurers paid an average of $3,228 leaving consumers, on average, “to pay $3,778 for an emergency in which they had no choice.”

• The same New York study found that 90% of surprise medical bills were not for emergency services, but for other in-hospital care. The specialty areas of physicians most often submitting such bills were anesthesiology, lab services, surgery, and radiology. Out-of-network assistant surgeons, who often were called in without the patient’s knowledge, on average billed $13,914, while insurers paid $1,794 on average. Surprise bills by out-of-network radiologists averaged $5,406, of which insurers paid $2,497 on average.

• A private study of data reported by health insurers in 2013 to the Texas Department of Insurance suggest that emergency room physicians often do not participate in the same health plan networks as the hospitals in which they work. Three Texas insurers with the largest market share reported that between 41% and 68% of dollars billed by for emergency physician care at in-network hospitals were submitted by out-of-network emergency physicians. Analysis of provider directories of these three insurers found that between 21% and 45% of in-network hospitals had no in-network emergency room physicians.

Federal and State protections against surprise medical bills

Policymakers at the federal and state level have expressed concern that surprise medical bills can pose significant financial burdens and are beyond the control of patients to prevent since, by definition, they cannot choose the treating provider. Various policy proposals have been advanced, and some implemented, to address the problem. These include hold harmless provisions that protect consumers from the added cost of surprise medical bills, including limits or prohibitions on balance billing. Others include disclosure requirements that require health plans and/or providers to notify patients in advance that surprise balance billing may occur, potentially giving them an opportunity to choose other providers.

Federal policy responses

Several federal standards have been adopted or proposed to address the problem of surprise medical bills in private health plans generally, in qualified health plans offered through the Marketplace, and in Medicare. These standards vary in scope and applicability:

• Out-of-network emergency services (all private health plans) – The ACA requires non-grandfathered health plans, in and outside of the Marketplace, to provide coverage for out-of-network emergency care services and apply in-network levels of cost sharing for emergency services, even if the plan otherwise provides no out-of-network coverage. For example, if an HMO would normally cover 80% of allowed charges for in-network care and nothing for out-of-network care, the HMO would have to pay 80% of allowed charges for an out-of-network emergency room visit. This provision does not, however, limit balance billing by out-of-network emergency providers.

• Proposed changes to coverage for out-of-network non-emergency services (Marketplace plans) – Recently the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services proposed changes to address surprise medical bills for non-emergency services for individuals covered by qualified health plans offered through the Marketplace. Proposed standards would apply when an enrollee receives care for essential health benefits from an out-of-network provider in an otherwise in-network setting (for example, anesthesia care for surgery performed in an in-network hospital.) Plans would be required to apply out-of-network cost sharing for such care toward the plan’s annual out-of-pocket limit for in-network cost sharing. The proposed rule would waive this requirement whenever plans notify enrollees in writing at least 10 days in advance (for example, as part of a plan pre-authorization process) that such surprise medical bills might arise. The proposed rule indicates that CMS may consider an alternative under which all out-of-network cost sharing for surprise medical bills would count toward the in-network OOP limit, regardless of whether the plan provides advance notification, but notes the agency is “wary of the impact of such a policy on premiums.” The proposal would not apply to balance billing charges arising from surprise medical bills. In addition, the proposal would seem to not affect enrollees of HMO or EPO plans that do not cover non-emergency out-of-network services at all. Such plans comprise 73% of all QHPs offered in the federal Marketplace in 2016.

• Out-of-network services (Medicare) – Rules governing the traditional Medicare program generally limit patient exposure to balance billing, including surprise medical bills. Providers that do not participate in Medicare are limited in the amount they can balance bill patients to no more than 15% of Medicare’s established fee schedule amount for the service. Since these rules were adopted in 1989, the vast majority of providers accept Medicare assignment, and beneficiary out-of-pocket liability from balance billing has declined from $2.5 billion annually in 1983 ($5.65 billion in 2011 dollars) to $40 million in 2011. The rules are somewhat different for Medicare Advantage plans, which typically have more limited provider networks compared to traditional Medicare and which may not provide any coverage out-of-network. For emergency services, Medicare Advantage plans must apply in-network cost sharing rates even for out-of-network providers. Balance billing limits similar to those under traditional Medicare also apply. For non-emergency services, enrollees in PPO plans in surprise medical bill situations would be liable for out-of-network cost sharing, but Medicare balance billing rules would still apply, while enrollees in HMO plans might not have any coverage for non-emergency out-of-network services.

State policy responses

• New York’s comprehensive approach to surprise medical bills – Last year a new law took effect in New York limiting surprise medical bills from out-of-network providers in emergency situations and in non-emergency situations when patients receive treatment at an in-network hospital or facility. To date, this law stands out as offering the most comprehensive state law protection against surprise medical bills. For emergency services, patients insured by state-regulated health plans (e.g., not including self-funded employer plans) are held harmless for costs beyond the in-network cost sharing amounts that would otherwise apply. For non-emergency care, patients who receive surprise out-of-network bills can submit a form authorizing the provider to bill the insurer directly, and then are held harmless to pay no more than the otherwise applicable in-network cost sharing. In both situations, out-of-network providers are prohibited from balance billing the patient; although providers who dispute the reasonableness of health plan reimbursement may appeal to a state-run arbitration process to determine a binding payment amount. The New York law applies only to state-regulated health plans. However, patients who are uninsured or covered by self-insured group health plans may also apply to the state-run arbitration process to limit balance billing by providers under certain circumstances.

• Limited provisions addressing surprise medical bills – A number of other states have laws limiting balance billing by out-of-network providers in certain circumstances. Some of these laws apply only to certain types of health plans (HMO vs. PPO) or only to certain types of providers or services (for example, for ambulance providers or emergency care services.)

• NAIC model act – This fall, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) proposed changes to its health plan network adequacy model act to address surprise medical bills. NAIC model acts do not have the force of law, but often encourage state legislative action. For example, twenty states had adopted the previous NAIC model act on network adequacy or similar laws for network-based health plans. In addition, federal health insurance laws and regulations sometimes cite NAIC model act standards. The model act revisions would apply new standards for in-network facilities (hospitals and ambulatory care facilities) with non-participating facility based providers (such as anesthesiologists or emergency physicians). For emergency services, state-regulated plans would be required to apply in-network cost sharing rates for surprise medical bills (extending the ACA’s requirement for non-grandfathered plans to grandfathered plans as well). For balance billing amounts, out-of-network facility-based providers would be required to offer patients 3 choices: (1) pay the balance bill, (2) for balance bill amounts greater than $500, submit the claim to a mediation process with the provider to determine an allowed charge amount, or (3) rely on any other rights and remedies that may be available in the state. Similar requirements would apply for non-emergency services. In addition, health plans that require pre-authorization of facility-based care would be required to notify enrollees that surprise medical bills could arise, and plans would be required to provide enrollees with a list of facility-based providers that are participating in the plan network. Finally, plans would be required to keep data on all requests for mediation involving surprise medical bills and, upon request, report it to the state regulator.

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Obamacare supporters don’t like talking about it — but the individual mandate is working

According to this article published by Vox, healthy young adults are finally starting to get the message about the importance of signing up for health insurance coverage, which is integral to making health insurance affordable.

by Sarah Kliff,

Recent enrollment data shows that the mandate is working. The exact type of people the requirement was meant to target — young, healthy adults who might forgo coverage were it not for a government fine — signed up in record numbers this year.

Having a decent number of young and health people in the insurance pool is integral to making costs affordable for everyone, which is exactly why the mandate exists in the first place. And architects of Obamacare’s enrollment strategy say that talking about the mandate — something Obamacare supporters didn’t really start doing until 2015 — has been core to making it work.

Obamacare supporters used to skirt talk of the mandate.

The earliest polls made the facts clear: Americans did not like the idea of the government requiring the purchase of health insurance. The mandate was the very first part of the law challenged in court.

Obamacare supporters took all of this in consideration as they crafted early messages.

“The first year we were concerned it would be interpreted as a negative message, possibly turning people off,” says Anne Filipic, who runs Enroll America, a national nonprofit focused on getting the uninsured signed up for the health law’s insurance expansion.

But 2015 was different. Survey research had shown that, despite the mandate’s unpopularity, reminding the uninsured of the fees they’d face for remaining uninsured was an excellent way to encourage them to buy coverage. The penalty rose from $95 in 2014 to $695 in 2016.

“THE FIRST YEAR WE WERE CONCERNED IT WOULD BE INTERPRETED AS A NEGATIVE MESSAGE”

So this year, the mandate was “core” to Enroll America’s message. “It’s in our outreach script, it’s in our email messaging, it’s integrated into the top line points we want to get across,” Filipic says.

New data suggests the new message was successful. In 2015, people under 35 made up 35 percent of Healthcare.gov’s open enrollment sign-ups. In 2014, the number stood at 33 percent. What’s more: Healthcare.gov netted 980,000 new enrollees under 35 this year, a big increase over the 670,000 new sign ups last year.

The percentage point increase is, to be sure, slight. But it does show that, in 2015, there was something that worked to convince way more young adults to sign up for coverage — people who sat out the chance to do so in 2013 and again in 2014.

The individual mandate motivates young people to sign up — a lot
If there’s anyone who understands how young adults think about the individual mandate, it’s Mike Perry and Tresa Undem. They run the polling firm PerryUndem that, for the past two years, has done some of the most extensive work surveying the Obamacare-eligible population.

They’ve consistently found that the individual mandate tends to be a stronger motivator for young adults (for them, people between 18 and 29) than any other demographic.

“They’re not like other groups,” says Perry. “In focus groups, they don’t talk about wanting preventive care, or the importance of covering their family. Young adults really talk about two things: accidents could screw me over, and I don’t want to pay the fine.”

Perry and Undem conducted a survey in 2014 of the people who signed up for coverage in Obamacare’s first enrollment period. They found that young adults (18 to 29) were more likely to say they signed up for coverage because “I didn’t want to pay the fine” than any other demographic.

Perry pointed to data from Massachusetts’ health insurance expansion, which phased its mandate in over three years — and saw young adult enrollment go up as the penalties grew higher.

For the first six months of the Massachusetts health insurance expansion (from July to December 2007), there was no penalty for not carrying coverage, and the average age of those covered was 45.1. In January 2008, the state began to assess a $219 penalty to the uninsured — and the average age of enrollment dropped to 43.3. The full mandate penalty of $900 started in January 2009, and average age fell again, this time to 41.3.

“My own work tells me there has to be a connection,” Perry says. “For young adults, they don’t have as many motivations as other cohorts. So when the fine goes up, so does their interest in getting coverage.”

Pro-Obamacare groups are trying to make the mandate work even better
Enroll America knew, from its survey data, that the mandate was a good way to convince young adults to buy health insurance. And they’ve used the past year to try and perfect the message, to increase the odds that someone they email or call would end up enrolling in coverage.

For example, Filipic said that her group wanted to understand what they should call the individual mandate. Should it be the mandate? Or a tax? A fine? A penalty?

Enroll America tested out the different words in different versions in the subject lines of their emails, seeing which ones recipients were more or less likely to open. They found that fine worked best — so they went with that.
Another thing Enroll has learned: people like to know the size of the fine, so the group tries to feature that number prominently, too.

Filipic and her team already think the mandate could play a bigger role in their messaging going forward. Right now, Enroll America has a calculator that lets potential enrollees see how much financial help they’d be eligible to receive if they signed up for coverage.

The group is experimenting with changing that calculator to also display the size of the fine the individual would pay if they didn’t buy coverage.

“The calculator is consistently the most visited page on our site, so we’re testing different ways to incorporate that information,” she says. “We want to give consumers specific information, related to their own situation, rather than generalities.”

Filipic doesn’t know exactly what that will look like — it will take a bit more testing. But she does know that the mandate, as part of Enroll America’s message, is here to stay.

“The increase in young people is very encouraging,” she says. “The fine is going up, and we’re three years into this now. So the repeated message, seeing friends and family get coverage, all those things are now starting to come together.”

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This Could Be the Obamacare Outcome we’ve All Been Waiting For

This often-overlooked long-term goal of Obamacare may be finding the mark according to this latest study from the American Cancer Society.

The third open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, best known as Obamacare, has been ongoing for roughly five weeks now. And as seems to be the trend around this time of year, more questions than answers appear to be swirling around healthcare’s law of the land.

Big changes lead to an uncertain future

Obamacare is facing a number of changes in the 2016 calendar year, and, frankly, no one is certain yet how those changes might affect enrollment or patient mix for insurers.

For example, insurance premiums are rising at about their fastest rate in about a decade. The Great Recession held premium rate inflation in check for years, but the failure of more than half of Obamacare’s health cooperatives, coupled with many low-cost insurers coming to the realization that their rates were unsustainably low, are leading to big premium hikes in the upcoming year.

Data from the Washington Examiner showed that 231 insurers requested double-digit percentage premium price hikes in 2016 compared to just 121 in 2015. Furthermore, the magnitude of these hikes — 61 plans are looking for a minimum premium increase of 30% this year — is much higher than 2015. In short, there’s concern that higher premiums could reduce the affordability of the program for those who don’t qualify for a subsidy, leading to a higher uninsured rate.

Meanwhile, the employer mandate will be fully implemented on Jan. 1, 2016. The employer mandate will require that businesses with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees (FTE’s) offer eligible health coverage to those FTE’s and their dependents under the age of 26, as well as provide financial assistance in instances where low-income FTE’s would be paying more than 9.5% of their modified adjusted gross income out of pocket toward their premium. If qualifying businesses fail to follow the rules, they could be looking at a $2,000 to $3,000 fine per employee.
The big question here is how businesses will respond. Will bigger companies step up and supply health insurance for their workers or will we see layoffs, hour cutbacks, or a move to private health exchanges? Obamacare’s big changes in 2016 are leading to a seemingly uncertain enrollment outlook in the near term.

Obamacare’s incredibly important goal that you probably overlooked

The easiest way to measure the success of Obamacare has always been by its overall enrollment totals. Obamacare was first and foremost designed to reduce the number of uninsured and to utilize the individual mandate and employer mandate to make that happen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in Q1 2015 that just 9.2% of U.S. adults remained uninsured, including Medicare patients, which is the lowest figure on record. By this token, Obamacare would appear to be hitting its primary goal.

But there’s an even more important long-term goal that’s often lost on critics when discussing Obamacare’s success or failure — namely, the impact that preventative (and earlier) medical access could have on reducing long-term medical costs.
For insurers, Obamacare is a bit of a give and take. Insurers are enrolling more people than ever, and they’re also being required to accept members with pre-existing conditions. The result is that some insurers, such as the nation’s largest, UnitedHealth Group, are dealing with adverse selection and losing money on their individual marketplace plans because they’ve enrolled a large number of sicker individuals. Even though some of its large peers such asAnthem are healthfully profitable, the margins most insurers are generating on Obamacare plans (if they’re even profitable in the first place) are relatively small.

Now here’s the catch: In exchange for spending more money on their members up front, it’s possible that chronic and serious diseases that are the primary expense culprit for insurance companies can be caught before they become a serious issue. Thus, while health benefit providers may be spending more now than they would like to, their long-term outlook is also looking brighter presuming the current generation of members is now going to be healthier than the last generation given expanded access to medical care.

This could be the outcome we’ve been waiting for.

This last point sounds great on paper, but it’s difficult to prove that Obamacare is really making a dent in lowering long-term healthcare costs, especially since it’s only been the law of the land for about two years. All that consumers and critics can focus on at the moment are the rapidly rising premium prices.

However, a new study from the American Cancer society that was published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association late last month appears to show that there is a correlation between Obamacare’s expansion and a higher rate of cervical cancer diagnoses in select patients.

Researchers from the Department of Epidemiology at Emory University and from the ACS’ Department of Intramural Research analyzed a large database of cancer cases within the United States, separating cervical cancer diagnoses for women ages 21 to 25 in one group from cervical cancer diagnoses in women ages 26 to 34 in the other cohort. The reasoning behind this split? Persons under the age of 26 are still eligible to be covered under their parents’ health plan under Obamacare, and thus the expansion of this dependent clause should give researchers a reasonable correlation of how well Obamacare is affecting the rate of cervical cancer diagnoses.

After examining cervical cancer diagnosis rates for both cohorts before and after the implementation of Obamacare, researchers noted that there was a substantial increase in the number of cervical cancer diagnoses for women ages 21 to 25, whereas the age 26-34 cohort had a relatively consistent number of diagnoses before and after Obamacare’s implementation.

On the surface, a rising rate of cervical cancer diagnoses may not sound good at all. But, in a different context it could be just the news we’ve been hoping for. The key to beating cervical cancer is discovering it early, and presumably being able to stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26 helped the 21- to 25-year-old cohort gain this vital medical access. It’s possible that this early diagnoses not only saved lives, but for insurers that it kept them from shelling out big bucks in mid- to late-stage cancer treatments.

Keep in mind that this is just one example, and one example does not make a trend. However, it’s long been postulated that reducing the barriers to health insurance would lead to a higher medical utilization rate for consumers and a better chance of discovering potentially serious and chronic conditions at an earlier time, thus saving the patients’ lives and cutting insurers’ long-term medical expenses. It’s possible we could be witnessing the first signs of that.

Understandably, we’ll want to see additional studies emerge that examine disease diagnosis and treatment rates in a pre- and post-Obamacare setting so we can make a conclusive ruling as to whether or not Obamacare could actually lower long-term healthcare costs and improve long-term patient survival rates. The initial signs, though, are very encouraging.

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