How Not To Get “Hurt” Giving Birth: Medical Billing Tips for Parents

The Cost of Giving Birth: What Expecting Parents Should Know About Medical Billing

Giving birth in America comes with a lot of costs so disclosed and some not. It is possible to manage the cost of childbirth through informed, careful decision-making. The key is to plan ahead. The below article includes quotes by Medical Cost Advocate and appeared on Fatherly.com on August 16, 2019

By Adam Bulger – Fatherly.com

Giving birth

Moments after my daughter’s birth, I basically had to negotiate the cost of a timeshare.

My first job as a new dad was choosing a recovery room at a Manhattan hospital known for luxury accommodations. It was the dead of night. I was exhausted and unsure about our insurance coverage, so I opted for a lower-tier option. Months later, our insurance covered the room but, because of a billing error that took months to resolve, didn’t cover basic care.
Sorting out the cost of birth was confusing and stressful. But compared to other parents, my family had it pretty easy. Giving birth in America is an expensive, confusing process where parents often feel like they have no choices or negotiating power. But medical billing experts and maternity care advocates say it’s possible to manage the cost of childbirth through informed, careful decision-making.

In a 2013 national study of inpatient care costs, pregnancy and childbirth hospitalizations accounted for five of the 20 most expensive conditions for hospital stays covered by Medicaid and three of the 20 most expensive conditions for hospital stays covered by private insurance. The mean hospital stay expense is $18,000. All told, a standard birth could run you roughly $30,000. If a C-Section is required? It’s considerably more. But despite the price tag, births aren’t big money-makers for hospitals. Sean P. Lillis, founder and CEO of New York City–based medical billing services firm Billing Geeks, notes that the high cost of birth for parents doesn’t translate into enormous profits for hospitals.

Per Lillis, hospitals don’t make money off of obstetrics. Hospitals have to devote considerable time, resources, and staff for labor. Despite the overhead, private insurance pays hospitals according to fee-for-service schedules, meaning insurance pays more to hospitals for some types of patients, like the ones undergoing short stay surgical procedures requiring a battery of tests and procedures, than others, like the ones giving birth. “They can’t make their maximum reimbursement charge rate,” he says.

While the real action of having a kid happens in the delivery room, that’s not what you pay for. Most labor costs happen later, during the mom’s short hospital stay following birth.
“Four out of five of all dollars paid on behalf of the mother and the baby across that full episode from pregnancy through the postpartum and newborn period go into that relatively brief hospital window,” says Carol Sakala, Director of Childbirth Connection Programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Some of the hospital costs, like medical tests for the baby and mother, can’t be avoided. Others you might be able to work around. Some hospitals reportedly impose fees for using their TVs; others can charge as much as $20 for an Ibuprofen. Packing an iPad and a bottle of Advil in your go-bag can defray some of those gotchas. But, honestly, saying no to these add-ons is chump change compared to what you can save by doing a little homework ahead of time.

How to Avoid the High Costs of Child Birth
Maria Montecillo, a healthcare insurance and billing advocate for the New Jersey medical billing advocacy firm Medical Cost Advocate, says parents should get in the weeds of their health plan as soon as they know they’re expecting. Knowing what health care providers are in your network makes a huge cost difference. And if your network’s too small, you may be lucky enough to be able to expand it. While it isn’t easy to time a pregnancy, the months leading up to your company’s health care enrollment period are an ideal time to make informed coverage changes.

“If you know you’re going to be pregnant this year, think about changing your insurance coverage,” Montecillo says. “You’ll pay a higher premium now but it’ll work out later.”
And when you’re getting close to the due date, taking your time can save a lot of money. Hospitals often try to slot births into a timetable that benefits the institution but may harm its patients, as there’s evidence early admission correlates with higher rates of labor induction and C-section births.
“The system is, for its convenience, pushing women into giving birth at weekday, daytime, non-holiday hours,” Sakala says. “A vast number of labor inductions, which add costs, could be avoided, a vast number of Caesarians, which add costs, could be avoided.”

Delayed admission to labor, where the mother doesn’t enter the delivery until they’re in active labor, is a simple way to reduce the cost of birth. Under delayed admission, the mother, ideally with the guidance of a midwife, doula, or other birthing professional, monitors the frequency and intensity of her contractions.

If the expectant mother has a hearty constitution or advanced skills in pain management, forgoing an epidural can avoid billing surprises.
“One of the places where people are getting into trouble with out-of-network providers is with the anesthesiologist,” Sakala says. “You didn’t choose that person, and the person who’s on call at that time could very well be out-of-network and those charges could be sky-high.”

It might be possible to skip the hospital — and its price tag — altogether. Sakala is a big proponent of birth centers, non-hospital labor facilities that offer natural births, without epidurals, inductions, or Caesarians or the high costs associated with those procedures. “They’re avoiding many things that are avoidable and pulling in beneficial practices that might be kind of low-tech, like being up and about, as opposed to staying in bed,” she says. “Or being in a tub or being in a shower. Those kinds of things can make a huge difference.”

The first month after the birth, parents have a small window of opportunity to shuffle around their insurance coverage. If the mother and father have separate insurance coverages, a baby’s birth is automatically billed under the mother’s insurance. They have 30 days to add the newborn to either the mother or father’s policy. Tracking the vagaries of insurance coverage can easily slip down the priorities list when you’re dealing with a newborn but ignoring it can court disaster.
“I once had a case where the parents ‘forgot’ to add the baby into their insurance plan, and they had to wait until open enrollment for the baby to be added,” Montecillo says. “As luck would have it, the baby developed complications and needed surgery. The insurance company stuck to their guns and refused coverage for the baby, as this was clearly stated on the policy and the parents were hit with a huge medical bill.”

When your insurance company’s bill for the birth arrives, don’t rush out to the post office with a check. Take your time and scrutinize the charges. Insurance coverage is complicated, even for insurance professionals. Mistakes happen. An insurer may have calculated a payment on the basis of an incorrect fee schedule for your plan or charged you for something that wasn’t performed.
“Look over the bill carefully,” Montecillo says. “It’s just like at a restaurant. You want to see that if you ordered chicken nuggets that they charged you for chicken nuggets.”

Spotting a costly error can be infuriating. Nonetheless, overt hostility is the wrong approach to the discovery. Montecillo says that everything is negotiable — she chiseled down a $60,000 triplet birth to a $1,300 final bill, for example — but only when the person on the phone wants to negotiate. And that means being not just polite but persuasive. “Start with sweetness but if you’re not getting anywhere, ask to talk to a manager,” she says.

And Montecillo speaks from experience. Before working on behalf of consumers, she spent 14 years as billing manager for a large private medical practice.
“I was on the other end of those calls and I know that I can make changes,” she says. “But if you’re nasty or you’re saying mean things about the doctor, I can say no.”

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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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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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When Health Costs Harm Your Credit

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL New York Times

This is an excellent article outlining the problems people can run into by allowing medical bills to go unpaid. It takes a long time to decipher what you actually owe, but providers can report you to credit agencies for late payment very quickly.  People in these types of situations have reason to worry.

LIKE most people, I am generally vigilant about paying my bills — credit cards, mortgage, cellphone and so on. But medical bills have a different trajectory. I (usually) open the envelopes and peruse the amalgam of codes and charges. I sigh or swear. And set them aside for when I have time to clarify the confusion: An out-of-network charge from a doctor I know is in-network? An un-itemized laboratory bill from a doctor I’ve never heard of? A bill for a huge charge before my insurer has paid its yet unknown portion of a hospital’s unknowable fee?

I would never countenance the phrase “60 days past due” on my Visa card statement. But medical bills? Well… with the complex negotiations that determine my ultimate payment, it often takes months to understand what I actually owe.

Unfortunately, I may be playing a dangerous game. Mounting evidence shows that chaos in medical billing is not just affecting our health care but dinging the financial reputation of many Americans: While the bills themselves frequently take months to sort out, medical debts can be reported rapidly to credit agencies, and often without notification. And even small unpaid bills can severely damage credit ratings.

A mortgage initiator in Texas, Rodney Anderson of Supreme Lending, recently looked at the credit records of 5,000 applicants and found that 40 percent had medical debt in collection, with the average around $400; even worse, most applicants were unaware of their debt. Richard Cordray, director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has noted that half of all accounts reported by collection agencies now come from medical bills, and the credit record of one in five Americans is affected.

A single medical bill reported to a credit agency can easily become a “millstone around your neck” said Mark Rukavina, principal at Community Health Advisors, a health care advisory service. He added: “It will take a long time to make that right, even once the bill is paid. I’ve had mortgage brokers call me and say ‘I have these people with great credit. They’ve refinanced before, but now they’ve got this medical bill and even though they’ve paid it off, I can’t get them a good rate.’ ”

Part of the problem is that there are few standards governing medical debts: One billing office might give you — or your insurer — 60 days to pay before pursuing collection. Another might allow you to pay off a bill slowly over a year. Many will sell the debt to collection companies, which typically take a cut of the proceeds and decide when or whether to report unpaid debt to credit agencies.

The problem is accelerating for several reasons. Charges are rising. Insurance policies are requiring more patient outlays in the form of higher deductibles and co-payments. More important, perhaps, is that while doctors’ practices traditionally worked out deals for patients who had trouble paying, today many doctors work for large professionally managed groups and hospital systems whose bills are generated far away, by computer.

Both Congress and the protection bureau have been trying to better insulate patient credit scores from the inefficiencies of our market-based medical system. Various proposals have been considered to differentiate medical debt from other forms; it could be erased once it has been paid off or not reported to credit agencies at all, for example. So far, the credit industry has fought successfully against such efforts, noting that they could allow some genuine scofflaws to evade legitimate charges. But it’s also good business, since health care bills are now the largest source of business for collection companies, according to consumer protection agency officials.

Having spent the last year reporting a series on American health costs, I’ve heard plenty about credit casualties.

Gene Cavallo, 61, a New Mexico businessman who put his children through college, had always paid his bills promptly and had an excellent credit rating, until he required surgical excision of a melanoma on his shin two years ago. The more than 60 bills generated for the surgery and six months of follow-up visits — arriving sporadically and ranging from 18 cents to $17,000 — came to $110,000; his insurance covered about $70,000.

When various providers asked him to pay the remaining $40,000, he requested itemized bills and balked at some of the “ridiculously inflated prices,” such as $85 for tweezers and $20 for a box of tissues. He argued the bills point by point, and ultimately agreed to pay $25,000.
But during the negotiations some of the debt was sent to collection. Two years later, he no longer answers the daily robocalls from collection agencies and has had a couple of credit cards canceled because his score has fallen. “It was a scary thing to do because I own a business and dabble in real estate, so the ability to borrow has always been important to me. And now I have no ability, I assume, to borrow for any reason.”
Michael S., who declined to give his full name so as to protect his reputation with business clients, had to declare bankruptcy in Wisconsin more than five years ago after a fraught year in which his toddler was evaluated for what proved to be a benign neurological condition that required no treatment: “You’d get bills for several different doctors’ groups and for tests and M.R.I.s and you don’t know what they are. I was having trouble figuring out who we owed what. And then, if it goes to collection, then suddenly they’re saying we need this paid now.”

With medical expenses, unlike most other purchases, you generally don’t know the price the hospital will charge in advance. And the subsequent bills and insurance statements — so-called explanations of benefits — are often layered in obfuscation and pressure tactics.

Consider Chris Sullivan of Pennsylvania, whose $2,770 bill for an echocardiogram offered a “prompt payment” discount of 20 percent if he wrote a check within 21 days — meaning a discount for not asking questions on a bill for a test he was told would be under $300.

Another “explanation of benefits” statement notified Joe Cotugno of New York City that his two-day hospital stay for a hip replacement was billed at $99,469.70 (doctors’ fees not included). Cigna paid $68,420.53 after knocking off some $28,000 and requiring Mr. Cotugno to pay $3,018.41. So, it informed him, “You saved 96 percent.” Huh?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been studying the impact of medical billing on credit scores since 2012, acknowledging that unpaid medical bills in collection “frequently end up on consumer credit reports,” as an outgrowth of “very complex and confusing systems of figuring out who owes what after a medical procedure.” Mr. Cordray, the bureau’s director, said it would take appropriate action if harmful practices were identified.

Bills in Congress that would regulate the practices have been stalled for years. The Medical Debt Relief Act was passed by the House in 2010, but never made it to a Senate vote. After a modified version of the bill failed to pass again last year, another act was recently introduced in the Senate and House.

Meanwhile, patients are right to worry. When Matt Meyer, who owns a saddle-fitting company in New Hampshire, set up a monthly payment plan after some surgery, he was distressed to notice that the invoices came from a debt collector. “I had no idea this was considered debt,” he said, and wondered: “Are they reporting that” to a credit agency?

Good question.

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Driving a New Bargain in Health Care

By TYLER COWEN, professor of economics at George Mason University

Interesting piece on possible compromises that both political parties could agree to in improving the health care law.

The Affordable Care Act has gotten off to a rocky start. Federal and state online health insurance exchanges, which opened for business at the beginning of the month, have been bedeviled by technical snags. And opposition to the law from some House Republicans blocked funding for the entire federal government, leading to its partial shutdown.

In fact, with all the conflict and vituperation over Obamacare, it sometimes seems that one of the few things Democrats and Republicans agree on is that the law is imperfect at best. And they also agree that it could be improved. Even if a bipartisan deal to create a better health care system seems far off today, it’s not too soon to start imagining what a future bargain might look like.

Just to get started, I will assume that, at some point, Democrats will be willing to acknowledge that not everything has worked out as planned with the legislation, and that they would consider a rewrite that would expand coverage. I’ll also assume that Republicans will acknowledge that a feasible rewrite of the bill cannot give the Democrats nothing. And Republicans will need to recognize that repeal of Obamacare should not be their obsession, because they would then be leaving the nation with a dysfunctional yet still highly government-oriented health care system, not some lost conservative paradise. Both sides have a lot to gain, and, at some point, they should realize it.

Let’s look at some of the current problems in the health care system and see whether they might be patched up.

Even under Obamacare, many people will not have health insurance coverage, including two-thirds of poor blacks and single mothers and more than half the low-wage workers who lacked coverage before the law was enacted. That is largely because of the unwillingness of 26 governors to expand Medicaid coverage as the original bill had intended. The Supreme Court struck down that portion of the Affordable Care Act, however, giving states a choice.

Will many red-state governors eventually accept the act’s Medicaid extension, which is sometimes portrayed as a financial free lunch, since federal aid covers most of the coverage expansion? It’s not clear that they will. If the Republicans win the White House in 2016 and perhaps the House and Senate as well, they may cut off federal funds for that Medicaid expansion. In the meantime, many states don’t want to extend their Medicaid rolls, because such benefits are hard to withdraw once granted.

There is a deeper problem with relying heavily on Medicaid as the backbone of health care for the poor. The fact that so many governors have found political gain in opposing a nearly fully-funded Medicaid expansion suggests that long-term support for Medicaid is weaker than it appeared just a few years ago. Furthermore, in cyclical downturns, the increase in Medicaid coverage after a climb in unemployment puts much strain on state budgets.

A separate issue concerns employers who are shedding insurance coverage, whether by dropping retirees, moving more workers to part-time status, withholding coverage and paying fines mandated by law, or simply not hiring more workers in the first place. The magnitude of these effects is not yet clear, but over time we can expect that new businesses and new hiring will be structured to minimize costly insurance obligations. It’s no accident that the Obama administration handed out more than 1,000 exemptions from the employer coverage mandate, and postponed the employer mandate until 2015: both actions reflected underlying problems in the legislation. Ideally, the health care law should minimize what is essentially an implicit tax on hiring.

One way forward would look like this: Federalize Medicaid, remove its obligations from state budgets altogether and gradually shift people from Medicaid into the health care exchanges and the network of federal insurance subsidies. One benefit would be that private insurance coverage brings better care access than Medicaid, which many doctors are reluctant to accept.

To help pay for such a major shift, the federal government would cut back on revenue sharing with the states and repeal the deductibility of state income taxes. The states should be able to afford these changes because a big financial obligation would be removed from their budgets.

By moving people from Medicaid to Obamacare, the Democrats could claim a major coverage expansion, an improvement in the quality of care and access for the poor, and a stabilization of President Obama’s legacy — even if the result isn’t exactly the Affordable Care Act as it was enacted. The Republicans could claim that they did away with Medicaid, expanded the private insurance market, and moved the nation closer to a flat-tax system by eliminating some deductions, namely those for state income taxes paid.

At the same time, I’d recommend narrowing the scope of required insurance to focus on catastrophic expenses. If insurance picks up too many small expenses, it encourages abuse and overuse of scarce resources.

In sum, poorer Americans would get a guarantee of coverage and, with private but federally subsidized insurance, gain better access to quality care for significant expenses than they have now with Medicaid. Private insurance pays more and is accepted by many more doctors. But on the downside, the insured care would be less comprehensive than under current definitions of Obamacare’s mandate.

With a cheaper and more modest insurance package mandated under a retooled law, employers would be less intent on dropping coverage. That would help in job creation. It also would lower the federal cost of the subsidies through the exchanges, both because employers would cover more workers and because the insurance policies would be cheaper.

This wouldn’t be an ideal health care system, but it may be the best we can do, considering where we stand today.

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How to Charge $546 for Six Liters of Saltwater

This article exposes some of the ways medical product suppliers and hospitals mark up products, sometimes 1,000 times, to capture profitable revenue from sick patients and their insurance companies.  Another example of all of the players getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  Will it ever change?

By NINA BERNSTEIN for the NY TImes
It is one of the most common components of emergency medicine: an intravenous bag of sterile saltwater.

Luckily for anyone who has ever needed an IV bag to replenish lost fluids or to receive medication, it is also one of the least expensive. The average manufacturer’s price, according to government data, has fluctuated in recent years from 44 cents to $1.

Yet there is nothing either cheap or simple about its ultimate cost, as I learned when I tried to trace the commercial path of IV bags from the factory to the veins of more than 100 patients struck by a May 2012 outbreak of food poisoning in upstate New York.

 Some of the patients’ bills would later include markups of 100 to 200 times the manufacturer’s price, not counting separate charges for “IV administration.” And on other bills, a bundled charge for “IV therapy” was almost 1,000 times the official cost of the solution.

It is no secret that medical care in the United States is overpriced. But as the tale of the humble IV bag shows all too clearly, it is secrecy that helps keep prices high: hidden in the underbrush of transactions among multiple buyers and sellers, and in the hieroglyphics of hospital bills.
At every step from manufacturer to patient, there are confidential deals among the major players, including drug companies, purchasing organizations and distributors, and insurers. These deals so obscure prices and profits that even participants cannot say what the simplest component of care actually costs, let alone what it should cost.

And that leaves taxpayers and patients alike with an inflated bottom line and little or no way to challenge it.

A Price in Flux

In the food-poisoning case, some of the stricken were affluent, and others barely made ends meet. Some had private insurance; some were covered by government programs like Medicare and Medicaid; and some were uninsured.

In the end, those factors strongly (and sometimes perversely) affected overall charges for treatment, including how much patients were expected to pay out of pocket. But at the beginning, there was the cost of an IV bag of normal saline, one of more than a billion units used in the United States each year.

“People are shocked when they hear that a bag of saline solution costs far less than their cup of coffee in the morning,” said Deborah Spak, a spokeswoman for Baxter International, one of three global pharmaceutical companies that make nearly all the IV solutions used in the United States.

It was a rare unguarded comment. Ms. Spak — like a spokesman for Hospira, another giant in the field — later insisted that all information about saline solution prices was private.

In fact, manufacturers are required to report such prices annually to the federal government, which bases Medicare payments on the average national price plus 6 percent. The limit for one liter of normal saline (a little more than a quart) went to $1.07 this year from 46 cents in 2010, an increase manufacturers linked to the cost of raw materials, fuel and transportation. That would seem to make it the rare medical item that is cheaper in the United States than in France, where the price at a typical hospital in Paris last year was 3.62 euros, or $4.73.

Middlemen at the Fore

One-liter IV bags normally contain nine grams of salt, less than two teaspoons. Much of it comes from a major Morton Salt operation in Rittman, Ohio, which uses a subterranean salt deposit formed millions of years ago. The water is local to places like Round Lake, Ill., or Rocky Mount, N.C., where Baxter and Hospira, respectively, run their biggest automated production plants under sterility standards set by the Food and Drug Administration.

But even before the finished product is sold by the case or the truckload, the real cost of a bag of normal saline, like the true cost of medical supplies from gauze to heart implants, disappears into an opaque realm of byzantine contracts, confidential rebates and fees that would be considered illegal kickbacks in many other industries.

IV bags can function like cheap milk and eggs in a high-priced grocery store, or like the one-cent cellphone locked into an expensive service contract. They serve as loss leaders in exclusive contracts with “preferred manufacturers” that bundle together expensive drugs and basics, or throw in “free” medical equipment with costly consequences.

Few hospitals negotiate these deals themselves. Instead, they rely on two formidable sets of middlemen: a few giant group-purchasing organizations that negotiate high-volume contracts, and a few giant distributors that buy and store medical supplies and deliver them to hospitals.

Proponents of this system say it saves hospitals billions in economies of scale. Critics say the middlemen not only take their cut, but they have a strong interest in keeping most prices high and competition minimal.

The top three group-purchasing organizations now handle contracts for more than half of all institutional medical supplies sold in the United States, including the IVs used in the food-poisoning case, which were bought and taken by truck to regional warehouses by big distributors.
These contracts proved to be another black box. Debbie Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Cardinal Health, one of the three largest distributors, said she could not discuss costs or prices under “disclosure rules relative to our investor relations.”

Distributors match different confidential prices for the same product with each hospital’s contract, she said, and sell information on the buyers back to manufacturers.

A huge Cardinal distribution center is in Montgomery, N.Y. — only 30 miles, as it happens, from the landscaped grounds of the Buddhist monastery in Carmel, N.Y., where many of the food-poisoning victims fell ill on Mother’s Day 2012.

Among them were families on 10 tour buses that had left Chinatown in Manhattan that morning to watch dragon dances at the monastery. After eating lunch from food stalls there, some traveled on to the designer outlet stores at Woodbury Common, about 30 miles away, before falling sick.

The symptoms were vicious. “Within two hours of eating that rice that I had bought, I was lying on the ground barely conscious,” said Dr. Elizabeth Frost, 73, an anesthesiologist from Purchase in Westchester County who was visiting the monastery gardens with two friends. “I can’t believe no one died.”

About 100 people were taken to hospitals in the region by ambulance; five were admitted and the rest released the same day. The New York State Department of Health later found the cause was a common bacterium, Staphylococcus aureus, from improperly cooked or stored food sold in the stalls.

Mysterious Charges

The sick entered a health care ecosystem under strain, swept by consolidation and past efforts at cost containment.
For more than a decade, hospitals in the Hudson Valley, like those across the country, have scrambled for mergers and alliances to offset economic pressures from all sides. The five hospitals where most of the victims were treated are all part of merged entities jockeying for bargaining power and market share — or worrying that other players will leave them struggling to survive.

The Affordable Care Act encourages these developments as it drives toward a reimbursement system that strives to keep people out of hospitals through more coordinated, cost-efficient care paid on the basis of results, not services. But the billing mysteries in the food poisoning case show how easily cost-cutting can turn into cost-shifting.

A Chinese-American toddler from Brooklyn and her 56-year-old grandmother, treated and released within hours from the emergency room at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital, ran up charges of more than $4,000 and were billed for $1,400 — the hospital’s rate for the uninsured, even though the family is covered by a health maintenance organization under Medicaid, the federal-state program for poor people.
The charges included “IV therapy,” billed at $787 for the adult and $393 for the child, which suggests that the difference in the amount of saline infused, typically less than a liter, could alone account for several hundred dollars.

Tricia O’Malley, a spokeswoman for the hospital, would not disclose the price it pays per IV bag or break down the therapy charge, which she called the hospital’s “private pay rate,” or the sticker price charged to people without insurance. She said she could not explain why patients covered by Medicaid were billed at all.

Eventually the head of the family, an electrician’s helper who speaks little English, complained to HealthFirst, the Medicaid H.M.O. It paid $119 to settle the grandmother’s $2,168 bill, without specifying how much of the payment was for the IV. It paid $66.50 to the doctor, who had billed $606.

At White Plains Hospital, a patient with private insurance from Aetna was charged $91 for one unit of Hospira IV that cost the hospital 86 cents, according to a hospital spokeswoman, Eliza O’Neill.

Ms. O’Neill defended the markup as “consistent with industry standards.” She said it reflected “not only the cost of the solution but a variety of related services and processes,” like procurement, biomedical handling and storage, apparently not included in a charge of $127 for administering the IV and $893 for emergency-room services.

The patient, a financial services professional in her 50s, ended up paying $100 for her visit. “Honestly, I don’t understand the system at all,” said the woman, who shared the information on the condition that she not be named.

Dr. Frost, the anesthesiologist, spent three days in the same hospital and owed only $8, thanks to insurance coverage by United HealthCare. Still, she was baffled by the charges: $6,844, including $546 for six liters of saline that cost the hospital $5.16.
“It’s just absolutely absurd.” she said. “That’s saltwater.”

Last fall, I appealed to the New York State Department of Health for help in mapping the charges for rehydrating patients in the food poisoning episode. Deploying software normally used to detect Medicaid fraud, a team compiled a chart of what Medicaid and Medicare were billed in six of the cases.

But the department has yet to release the chart. It is under indefinite review, Bill Schwarz, a department spokesman, said, “to ensure confidential information is not compromised.”

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For Obamacare, Some Hurdles Still Ahead

President Obama and his advisers hope the healthcare overhaul will do two things. The first is to extend coverage to tens of millions of Americans who today lack health insurance. The second is to hold the line on rising health care costs. This article describes some hurdles to achieving those two goals. While you are enjoying a vacation this summer, hopefully you will have time to ponder the impacts Health Care Reform will have on you and your family.

By Eduardo Porter, NY Times

Like other big employers, in the mid-1990s Harvard University was struggling with the ballooning cost of providing health insurance.
It chose what was a novel solution for the time. It dropped its standard deal — a subsidy that rose in line with the price of the insurance policy — and switched some 10,000 workers on its payroll to a fixed subsidy that encouraged them to shop around for care.

For Harvard’s accountants, the change worked wonders. A study a couple of years later by David M. Cutler, a Harvard economist, and Sarah Reber, a Harvard graduate, concluded that competition among insurers cut the university’s health bill by 5 to 8 percent.
But not everybody was equally pleased. Families of workers who chose the Preferred Provider Organization offered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield — the most comprehensive plan, with lots of doctors and hospitals on its network — faced a $500-a-year jump in their out-of-pocket spending on health care.

Younger and healthier workers canceled their P.P.O. plans, enrolling in cheaper H.M.O. options or dropping Harvard insurance altogether. Left with a sicker patient base, the P.P.O. raised its premiums further, which prompted the next layer of relatively healthy customers to leave.
And so on. In 1997, Blue Cross/Blue Shield withdrew its P.P.O. from the market, making it a victim of what economists call the death spiral of adverse selection.

In a couple of months the nation is set to experience a similar shock on a very large scale: the greatest change in how Americans pay for health care since the advent of Medicare nearly half a century ago.

Come October, millions of uninsured people will be able to choose one of several health plans, offered at four different tiers of service and cost through new health exchanges coming onstream in every state.

Cheap “bronze” plans will shoulder some 60 percent of patients’ medical expenses. Pricey “platinum” plans will cover at least 90 percent. But insurers will not be allowed to exclude people with pre-existing conditions, or charge more for the sick, or put a lifetime cap on medical costs. Their policies will have to cover a minimum standard of medical care. And the government will subsidize those who cannot afford to buy the policies.

President Obama and his advisers hope the overhaul will do two things. The first is to extend coverage to tens of millions of Americans who today lack health insurance. The second is to hold the line on rising health care costs.

“Over time, success will depend on what happens to the cost curve,” Professor Cutler told me. “If we don’t bend the cost curve, everything will fail. The government won’t be able to afford it. Nobody will be able to afford it.”

In theory, the overhaul could meet both goals. Millions of new Americans armed with a subsidy and shopping among plans would bring consumer choice to bear, finally, on the health care industry. Insurers would compete to create policies that offered the most value for money, pressuring hospitals and doctors on behalf of all of us.

Yet despite the care the administration took in establishing incentives and safeguards, even some of Obamacare’s most committed backers are wondering whether the experiment will work as advertised — or, like Harvard’s P.P.O., go off the rails along the way.

Adverse selection is perhaps the direst threat. For Obamacare to work, millions of healthy, young, uninsured Americans must join a health plan to counterbalance the sicker millions who are most likely to buy insurance. Otherwise, health plans on the exchanges will have to raise premiums to shoulder the higher costs.

(more…)

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Healthcare Costs Top $20K Per Family

Here’s some more discouraging news: Healthcare for a family of four now costs as much as small family sedan. For many consumers the price to pay is too much. Even employers are grappling with rise in costs as they struggle to provide healthcare benefits to employees. Read the below article to learn just how much the cost of healthcare has risen in the past few years.

 

Margaret Dick Tocknell, for HealthLeaders Media , May 16, 2012

The national annual cost of medical care for a typical family of four with PPO coverage has edged up over $20,000 for the first time, according to the actuarial and consulting firm, Milliman.

The 2012 Milliman Medical Index estimates the annual cost at $20,728. That’s a record $1,335 increase in the total cost of care compared with 2011, and the first time the cost has notched above the $20K mark since Milliman started reporting on these costs twelve years ago. Through a combination of copayments, deductions, and premiums, the prototypical family of four will be responsible for a record share—42%—of its medical costs.

A combination of factors is driving the increase, including the comparative lack of control insurers exert on outpatients costs, a slowdown in hospital bed utilization, and the cost of technology in patient care, explains Chris Girod, principal and consulting actuary in Milliman’s San Diego office and a co-author of the report.

The good news? The pace of the increase is slowing. The 6.9% increase in total costs is the lowest annual rate of increase in more than a decade.

The MMI is comprised of five components: inpatient facility care, outpatient facility care, physician services, pharmacy, and miscellaneous other.

Among the MMI findings:

Outpatient facility costs posted its first single digit increase, 8.6%, in four years, but for the fifth year that increase outpaced all the other MMI components.

Outpatient facility care costs totaled $3,699, or 18% of a family of four’s annual healthcare bill. Girod explains that the level of insurer control is improving under contractual discount arrangements, but still isn’t on par with inpatient controls.

Inpatient facility utilization or the number of inpatient days for a covered population in a year has remained unchanged for several years. However, the patients who are hospitalized tend to require more intensive and expensive services that have helped boost the cost of treatment contributing to a 7.6% increase in the average charge per day costs.

Physician care costs reversed a four-year trend and increased by 5%. Girod says a number of things may have contributed to this cost bump, including evidence of some pushback by physicians in their contract negotiations with health plans.

Hospital inpatient costs ($6,531) and physician costs ($6,647) each account for 32% of a family of four’s total annual healthcare bill.

Pharmacy costs continued their roller coaster ride of cost increases and exceeded $3,000 for the first time. The 7.3% increase is down slightly from 2011’s 8%, but a significant increase over 2010’s 6%. Pharmacy costs totaled $3,056 or 15% of the family’s total annual healthcare bill. Girod says that while the shift to generics has helped slowed the growth in pharmacy costs, the expense of specialty drugs will have a growing impact on this cost trend.

The cost of miscellaneous other services such as durable medical equipment, ambulance services and home health posted a 6.7% increase to $795.

In addition to looking at costs on a nationwide basis, for the last five years the Index has looked at comparative healthcare costs in the same 14 cities across the country, including Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles.

With a current annual cost of $24,965, Miami has topped the list for five years. Girod explains that Miami has a large number of healthcare practitioners and capacity helps drive the demand for healthcare services. Also, the practice of defensive medicine is more prevalent in the Miami area.

Phoenix was the least expensive with a cost of $18,365 for a family of four.

For the 2012 study, healthcare costs in 11 of the 14 cities exceeded $20,000 annually for a typical family of four. In 2011 only six of the 14 cities posted costs in excess of $20,000. While that could suggest an easing in the geographic differences in the cost of healthcare, Girod says a more likely explanation is that “the entire scale is shifting up, both at the bottom and the top, so we just ended up with more cities over that $20,000 threshold.”

The report notes that so far the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has had “only a limited effect on total healthcare costs for the illustrative family of four.”

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Employer Healthcare Costs Outpace U.S. Healthcare Spending in 2009

Another article detailing the rise in healthcare costs particularly for small business and individuals. It’s interesting to note that inflation for 2009 was actually negative, yet healthcare costs continued to rise. What’s the deal?

HFMA

Average healthcare costs for U.S. employers rose 7.3 percent in 2009, up from 6.1 percent in 2008, according to a study by Thomson Reuters. Overall U.S. healthcare spending (including Medicare, Medicaid, and other payers) grew at a more modest 4.8 percent in 2009, according to National Health Expenditures data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Office of the Actuary. The U.S. inflation rate was negative in 2009.

Not surprisingly, smaller employers were hit the hardest. Among small employers (less than 5,000 employees), healthcare costs increased 9.8 percent in 2009, up from 5 percent in 2008. Medium-sized employers (5,000 to 50,000 employees) saw cost increases accelerate from 6.5 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2009. Among large companies (more than 50,000 employees) costs rose 5 percent in 2009, down from 5.8 percent in 2008.

The study analyzed insurance claims data for 144 small, medium-sized, and large companies that provided health benefits to 9.5 million individuals from 2007 to 2009.

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New health care law likely to raise benefits costs

Healthcare reform. Yahoo!

Not so fast! Don’t get excited just yet. While it may be seen as progressive and a monumental task to provide coverage to nearly 32 million uninsured, the cost may outweigh the gain. Benefit companies, actuarial firms, employers and most importantly, health insurers have all stated that the passage of such legislation fails to address the fundamental issue that is plaguing the healthcare system: Cost. Under the new legislation Healthcare costs are only expected to rise making it more difficult to maintain affordable healthcare coverage.  In this time of uncertainty, it’s all the more wise you use an advocate to help you maintain your healthcare costs.  Medical Cost Advocate can assist.

By Lydell Bridgeford

March 22, 2010

While the health care legislation passed by House Democrats on Sunday expands coverage to 32 million Americans, the measure is bound to increase the costs of employer-sponsored health benefits.

With the 219-to-212 vote, the House enacted health care legislation that imposes a 40% excise tax on employers that provide high-end insurance coverage, which would take effect in 2018. Companies with health plans that have premiums of $10,200 or more for singles and $27,500 for families are subjected to the tax. The House measure also requires employers with 50 or more workers to provide affordable health insurance or pay a penalty of up to $3,000 per worker.

Government economists estimate that the new health care law comes with a price tag of $938 billion over 10 years. Employers and employee benefits analysts assert that the government will most likely raise business taxes and fees on health insurers, pharmaceutical companies and medical-device manufacturers to foot the bill.

Most corporate leaders and business owners believe that those industries will then levy the costs of the taxes and fees onto their companies, resulting in higher premiums or reduced benefits for workers.

“The legislation significantly expands coverage for millions of Americans, and takes steps toward aligning what we pay for health care and the quality of those services.  But several aspects of the legislation will inevitably increase, rather than mitigate, health care costs; and the overall financial integrity of the measure depends on future Congresses and Presidents making very tough political decisions,” says James A. Klein of the American Benefits Council. “We urge the Senate to make much-needed improvements to the new law – starting this week – as it considers the budget reconciliation measure,” Klein adds.

“The access expansions are a significant step forward, but this legislation will exacerbate the health care costs crisis facing many working families and small businesses,” says Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of the trade association America’s Health Insurance Plan.

Early this month, Helen Darling, president of National Business Group on Health, told a group of HR/benefits professionals and corporate leaders that health care reform will bring increased costs to employers. “The cost of administrating your health plan will go up. We are constantly talking to lawmakers about how expensive the administrative burden will be on some of their ideas about reforming health care,” Darling observed.

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