Will Tax Credits Be Available In Federally-Run Exchanges?

[…] Both arguments are interesting, and very convincing. I read Jost’s first, and found myself nodding in agreement all the way through. But then when I read Cannon and Adler’s response, I also found their points to be compelling and hard to refute. This could be the sort of issue that many people would see as splitting hairs, but on an issue as contentious as the PPACA, I can see this debate getting quite a bit of traction over the next year as the exchange implementation process churns along. And it makes me glad that Colorado took the initiative early on (despite a lot of political wrangling) to begin the process of creating our own exchange. I know there are many flaws in the PPACA, and that the yet-unanswered question about how the exchanges will be funded starting in 2015 is a valid concern. But it still seems like a better solution than sitting back and waiting for the federal government to set up an exchange for us that 1) would not be tailored to our state’s specific needs and 2) might make Colorado residents ineligible for much-needed tax credits to help pay for health insurance.

Program Encourages Rural Students To Pursue Careers In Medicine

[…] I’ve written before about the PCP shortage, which exists even though many patients in well-served areas (and those with good private health insurance) may be unaware of it. Compounding the problem is the often lower median income in many rural communities. There are some exceptions of course, but in general the metropolitan areas of the state have higher average incomes than the rural areas. That means that it’s likely that a higher percentage of rural families – living in areas that are already underserved in terms of healthcare providers – qualify for state and federal health insurance programs that might further limit the options in terms of healthcare providers they can see.

All of this serves to highlight the importance of programs like CREATE Health Scholars. The program is relatively new and its first group of students is now moving on to post-graduate studies in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry and research. It will be interesting to look at the distribution of healthcare providers in rural areas of Colorado a decade from now. Hopefully the CREATE Health Scholars and other programs like it will have helped to close the gap between medically well-served and under-served areas of the state.

Success In Reducing Overutilization Of Medical Imaging

[…] Similar strategies – that utilize a variety of tactics introduced together – could likely be helpful in reducing healthcare spending in other areas, like pharmaceuticals for example. Health insurance carriers could be involved in the solution (with more prior authorizations or computer systems that prompt doctors to always start with the lowest-cost drug and then work up, etc.) but with buy-in and cooperation from medical providers, the public and the pharmaceutical industry itself, the impact would likely be far more impressive.

Colorado Hospital Payment Assistance Act Takes Effect Next Week

[…] To sum up the new law, hospitals will be required to charge uninsured patients earning less than 250% of FPL (and who are not covered by the Colorado Indigent Care Program) no more than the lowest negotiated price the hospital has with a private health insurance carrier. In addition, hospitals will have to clearly post their financial assistance, charity care and payment plan information so that patients will be aware of the financial options that are available.

In an article I wrote last week about the shooting victims in Aurora, I noted that although highly publicized tragedies tend to generate a lot of financial support (and in this case some of the hospitals treating the victims have offered to waive charges), there are many other people suffering from all sorts of injuries and illnesses whose cases do not receive media attention and who are crippled by the cost of their care. The Hospital Payment Assistance Program will hopefully provide some measure of relief for uninsured Coloradans who find themselves in need of hospital care in the future.

Laws That Protect Young Workers

[…] Teens working their first summer job might not have the knowledge or ability to speak up and refuse to put themselves in harm’s way or work more hours than they should. So laws have been crafted to protect them, and it’s up to the employer to understand the rules and follow them. The penalties for not doing so can be steep. This post is a good reminder at this time of year, when many businesses hire teens for part-time work during summer vacation. Especially if you’re an employer who hires young workers for part-time or temporary positions, Julie’s article is well worth the few minutes it takes to read.

Health Insurance For Seasonal Fire Fighters

[…] In order for these seasonal fire fighters to have health insurance coverage, they have to apply for individual policies or have coverage through a spouse’s group policy. On the upside, most of them are in excellent physical health, since that’s pretty much a job requirement. That means that underwriting on an individual policy isn’t as likely to be a problem as it is for the general population. But it’s important to be aware that some individual health insurance carriers include occupation and/or hobbies in their underwriting guidelines. In Colorado, there are a few carriers that ask questions on the application to determine whether the applicant engages in any high-risk jobs or hobbies. Wildland fire fighting falls under that category, which means that it’s unlikely that the applicant would be approved for coverage by a carrier that includes occupational risk it its underwriting.

There are several reputable individual health insurance carriers in Colorado that do not use occupational risk in their underwriting assessments, and these are obviously a better choice for anyone who has a high-risk job. A good broker can steer an applicant towards the carriers that don’t use occupational risk as part of their underwriting. Combined with the workers’ comp that covers the fire fighters while they’re on the fire line, a solid individual health insurance policy – which provides significant flexibility since it isn’t linked to employment – can help to create a safety net for the people who put a lot on the line to keep the rest of us safe. In the current scenario, this is the best option. But it does seem like it would be a good idea for the Forest Service to allow seasonal fire fighters to at least have the option of purchasing – via payroll deduction – the same health insurance that their full-time coworkers get.

Aetna, Humana and UnitedHealth Vow To Maintain Some Aspects Of ACA, Regardless Of Court Decision

Much of the healthcare community is eager to hear what the Supreme Court has to say – likely next week – about the ACA. Given how polarized the topic of healthcare reform has been over the past few years, there’s no way that any decision is going to please more than about half of the country, although the court has the option of picking and choosing various parts of the law to uphold or overturn as it sees fit.

Some aspects of the ACA have already been implemented and have proven to be very popular. A few of the country’s biggest health insurance carriers have stated that they will keep some of the most popular ACA provisions – even if the law is overturned. Aetna, Humana, and UnitedHealth have said that they will continue to offer preventive care with no cost-sharing, allow young adults to remain on their parents’ health insurance policy through age 26, and maintain the third-party appeals process that insureds can use if a claim is denied. Humana and UnitedHealth have also said that they will continue to have no lifetime benefit maximums on their policies and ban rescission except in cases of fraud. […]

Will Exchanges Really Be Able To Provide Lower Cost Health Insurance?

[…] It will be interesting to see how health insurance premiums in both the individual and small group market look in 2014 when the exchanges get underway, and then again in 2015. If we do see a significant reduction in the cost of small group health insurance via the exchanges, I have no doubt that plenty of small businesses will be eager to set up group plans for their employees – we already know that cost is the primary barrier, and that a lot of businesses would like to offer health insurance but simply cannot afford to do so. But I also wonder whether we might see trends in premium increases that are similar to what we have now, even within the exchange. In order to really get a handle on health insurance premiums, we have to find effective ways of controlling healthcare costs first. The ACA included numerous cost-control provisions, but it remains to be seen how effective they will be. The exchanges are a good way for people and businesses to be able to shop for health insurance and coordinate their coverage with their federal health insurance subsidies. But the exchanges cannot address the actual cost of healthcare, which continues to climb much faster than inflation.

Healthcare Costs Expected To Increase By 7.5% Next Year

[…] Average out-of-pocket exposure on health insurance policies has been steadily increasing over the last several years (in the individual and small group market as well as the large group market).  Choosing a policy with a higher deductible and/or copays is the easiest way to mitigate premium increases, and it’s a popular option among employers and individuals who purchase their own health insurance.  Ten years ago, Jay and I had a health insurance policy with a $1000 deductible per person.  Now we have a $3500 deductible per person, plus an additional $3500 in coinsurance on an Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield Core Share policy.  If we had stuck with a $1000 deductible all these years, our health insurance premium would be far higher than it is today.

The study Jason references notes that high deductible health insurance policies accounted for 4% of the market in 2006.  Over the next five years, that share increased to 17% by 2011.  My guess is that it will continue to increase as long as healthcare costs keep climbing at the rate that they have over the past decade.  If cost controls succeed at bringing healthcare cost increases more in line with other consumer price increases (projected to be 2% next year) over the next few years, I imagine that the popularity of high deductible health insurance policies will wane a bit.  There will always be people who are drawn to the tax advantages of HSA-qualified health plans, but a lot of individuals and employers who opt for higher deductibles are doing so in order to make their premiums more manageable.  As long as we continue to have healthcare costs that are climbing at a rate that far outpaces inflation and overall consumer price increases, we will likely see high deductible health insurance plans accounting for an ever-increasing segment of the market.

In addition to a shift towards higher deductible health insurance, large groups also have an increasing focus on wellness programs, which might make their employees less likely than the overall population to need healthcare.  This is another possible explanation for why health insurance premiums in the large group market are expected to climb an average of only 5.5% next year, even with an overall 7.5% increase in healthcare costs.

New Colorado Law Bans Trans Fats In “Competitive Foods” In Public Schools

I wrote last week about Colorado Governor Hickenlooper’s commitment to improving the overall health of our state’s population, and it’s fitting that he had just signed into law a bill that will ban trans fats in Colorado’s public schools – sort of – starting in the fall of 2013. Colorado Senate Bill 68 will ban trans fats on school premises, except for foods that are part of “a meal program of the United States Department of Agriculture”. The ban also does not apply to food that is distributed via a fundraiser. […]

Governor Hickenlooper Says Reform Can Succeed Without An Individual Mandate

Colorado Republicans have pounced on statements that Governor Hickenlooper made on Colorado Public Radio yesterday regarding the individual mandate. Although Governor Hickenlooper did not say that he’s opposed to the individual mandate, he expressed his belief that he doesn’t “think you have to mandate it if you craft it properly.” Since the individual mandate is without a doubt the most controversial aspect of the ACA, the governor’s words will be significant for both sides of the debate. A spokesperson for the governor’s office noted that Hickenlooper was discussing a hypothetical situation that could arise if the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate next month but leaves the rest of the ACA intact. Colorado has already done quite a bit of work on the state’s health benefits exchange, but the exchanges are currently being based on the assumption that health insurance will be mandatory in 2014. If the Supreme Court does away with the individual mandate but keeps the rest of the ACA, it will be a challenge for states to create health benefit exchanges that can operate efficiently without an individual mandate. […]

New Healthcare Price Comparison Database Coming Soon In Colorado

[…] Happily, it looks like we’re going to be getting a good healthcare price comparison database here in Colorado next year. This article from Kaiser Health News has all the details, and it looks promising. As the article states – and as we’ve noted here many times – healthcare costs sometimes seem to have little rhyme or reason. They can vary widely from one provider to another and from one area to another without much of a difference in quality of care or patient outcomes. But there are also some variables that have a justifiable impact on healthcare cost variation, such as the overhead expenses associated with teaching hospitals and hospitals that treat a higher-than-average number of uninsured patients. It sounds like the All Payor Claims Database is addressing those issues, so it will be interesting to see how the database accounts for them. I also like the fact that providers will be able to see how they compare with other providers before the data is released to the public, in order to allow the providers to start making improvements where necessary.

I can see this comparison tool – especially given how comprehensive it looks to be – being very beneficial for Colorado residents, and also helping to foster more competition among healthcare providers in the state.

Prescription Drug Reuse And Disposal Programs In Colorado

Four years ago, we wrote an article about recycling prescription drugs to be used by patients who don’t have health insurance or cannot afford their medications. This has remained a popular post on our blog, and people frequently search our site for information about prescription recycling and/or disposal programs in Colorado. So I wanted to write an updated post with information that we’ve come across in the years since we published that first article. […]

Too Big To Fail?

[…] Given the large market share that some hospital systems and health insurance carriers have in other states, I wonder if those organizations might already be “too big to fail”, even before ACOs come into the picture? Would the financial collapse of one of those systems be too much of a destabilizing factor and require a government bailout in order to protect the communities served by the healthcare organizations?

So far, we haven’t seen such a scenario. In general, when a healthcare organization leaves the market, it is bought out by another organization that is more financially sound (for example, Celtic agreed to take over World and American Republic’s insureds last year when those companies left the market). This happens quite often with hospitals and small-ish health insurance carriers. But the titans of the financial industry that had to be bailed out in 2008 were not the “small-ish” banks – they were huge organizations that everyone thought were very sound. If something like that were to happen to healthcare organizations – either insurers or large hospital systems – would a bailout be necessary in order to stabilize the healthcare system?

I assume that ACOs are being crafted with a bit more care and transparency than what went into CDOs. And hopefully the lessons learned in the financial markets crisis will be well-remembered as healthcare market overhauls are created.

Hospital Payment Assistance Program Will Benefit Colorado’s Uninsured Population

[…] SB12-134 will result in some significant changes in terms of how uninsured patients are billed when they receive treatment in a hospital (note that the bill only applies to hospitals – outpatient clinics, medical offices, and other non-hospital providers will not be impacted). Most people are aware that private health insurance carriers have negotiated rates that are lower than the “retail” price for medical services. Medicare and Medicaid have even lower negotiated prices. The reason SB12-134 is so important is that uninsured patients (usually those who have the least ability to pay medical bills) typically get charged the retail price. There is usually a cash discount available, but most uninsured patients typically don’t have enough cash sitting around to pay the whole bill up front. So – assuming they are able to pay the bill at all – they often end up on a payment plan (sometimes through a third party where interest rates can rival those of credit cards) and ultimately pay far more than any insurance carrier would pay.

SB12-134 applies to medically necessary care provided to uninsured patients who have a family income of not more than 250% of the federal poverty level ($57,625 for a family of four in 2012). And SB12-134 applies only if the care is not eligible for coverage through the Colorado Indigent Care Program (CICP). For those patients, hospitals may not charge more than the lowest rate they have negotiated with a private health insurance plan. This is a huge change from the status quo.

SB12-134 also requires hospitals to clearly state their financial assistance, charity care, and payment plan information on their website, in patient waiting areas, directly to patients before they are discharged, and in writing on the patients’ billing statements. Hospitals will also have to allow a patient’s bill to go at least 30 days past due before initiating collections procedures. […]

Who Pays The Bill If A Patient Checks Out Of The Hospital Against Medical Orders?

[…] None of that is true however. As long as the treatment provided is a covered service on the patient’s health insurance plan, and as long as any required pre-authorization was taken care of, the health insurance carrier does not withhold payment simply because the patient acted against medical orders and checked out of the hospital. This is also true of other forms of non-compliance: for example, patients who don’t fill their prescriptions or those who resume activity too soon after surgery will generally find that their health insurance still covers their bills according to the language of the contract.

If “never events” on the patient end of the scale were cause for claims denials, I have a feeling that there would be a lot more denied claims. Health insurance carriers can and do charge higher premiums for various choices people make (like smoking, for example). But once a policy is in force, and premiums are paid on time – and assuming the application was completed honestly – the coverage is usually not dependent on the patient following doctors orders

A Doctor Who Cooks Brussels Sprouts For A Patient

[…] Dr. Flansbaum’s article is a must-read if you’re interested in the socioeconomic factors that contribute to obesity and “lifestyle” health conditions. Colorado has the distinction of being the least-obese state in the US (although we recently passed the 20% mark in terms of the percentage of adults who are obese). I’m sure this is due in large part to the state’s relatively affluent population, the plethora of outdoor activities available (combined with 300 days of sunshine each year), and the plentiful food choices available. Of course there’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg question too… are there plenty of healthful food choices available here because the people who live here demand them, or are there healthy people here because of all the good food options we have?

Health Wonk Bloggers Think The Supreme Court Will Rule In Favor Of The ACA

[…] When I browsed around on most of the mainstream media regarding the Supreme Court and the ACA, I kept seeing predictions that the Court will ultimately find the individual mandate unconstitutional and either strike down that part of the law or return the whole ACA back to congress for a re-do (based on perceived negativity towards the law on the part of the Justices). But interestingly enough, all three blog posts in the HWR that dealt with this issue had the opposite opinion (and of course, at this point, all we can do is speculate and have opinions – nobody really knows how the Court will rule). They all take the position that the court is likely to rule in favor of the ACA and the individual mandate, or at least that the reports saying that the mandate is doomed are greatly exaggerated.

Sage’s article also notes that the Justices seem to be well aware of the problem of adverse selection (an issue that we’ve written about numerous times – guaranteed issue without a mandate either results in significant adverse selection or exorbitant health insurance premiums and few options for coverage). This is one of the major concerns that arises if we talk about doing away with the individual mandate, so it’s good that the Supreme Court is taking it into consideration (Sage notes that the lower courts didn’t seem to do so).

Now we just have to wait three months to see who’s right.

Few Changes For Colorado’s Health Report Card, But Obesity Rises To 22%

Since 2006, the Colorado Health Foundation has been grading the state on a variety of health-related measures reported on the Colorado Health Report Card each year. The 2011 report card was just released this week. The overall rankings haven’t changed much over the past couple years. The 2009 report card looks very similar to the 2011 version. The Healthy Children score rose from a D+ two years ago to a C- now. But the Healthy Aging score slipped from a B+ on the 2009 report card to a B in 2011 (after improving to an A- in 2010). The other three categories were unchanged from their results two years ago. […]

Will Healthcare IT Lead To Lower Healthcare Costs?

[…] My guess is that increased HIT will eventually (after the hiccups and bugs are worked out) result in more efficient care, better coordination of care between multiple doctors, fewer medical errors, and more streamlined health insurance claim processing. After reading the articles by McCormick et al and Mostashari, I think it’s clear that there’s some controversy in terms of whether HIT will lead to lower costs. I do think that HIT is coming one way or the other. It’s 2012. Most Americans are walking around with a touch screen mini computer in their pockets. We expect lightening fast internet connections and instant access to virtually any data we can think of. HIT will have to keep up, simply because technology keeps improving and it has to follow suit. But we’d be wise to carefully consider empirical data as much as possible in order to implement systems that have the best chance of success in terms of improving care and also lowering costs.

A Need For Evidence Based Medicine

[…] One of my favorite articles in this edition of Grand Rounds comes from Dr. Elaine Schattner, writing about a study that found little rhyme or reason in terms of follow-up surgery rates for breast cancer patients who initially opted for lumpectomies. It appears that a breast cancer patient’s surgical treatment after a lumpectomy is often based more on the surgeon involved than the medical facts of the case. Although evidence-based medicine has gotten a lot of talk lately, the study that Dr. Schattner discusses highlights an example of how difficult it can be for a patient to receive evidence-based care. And we know how hard it is for patients to be truly informed consumers when it comes to healthcare. Even if they’re able to get basic information about pricing, it can be very difficult for a patient to realistically determine a treatment path – which is why most patients rely on their doctors for advice, especially for major illnesses like breast cancer.

Lack Of Public Understanding About Healthcare Reform Law

This article from Public News Service highlights some of the hurdles the ACA faces in terms of public opinion. An attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy notes that more than 50% of consumers think that the healthcare reform law is creating a new government-run health insurance policy. Given the general unpopularity of government-run programs in general, it’s not surprising that the healthcare reform law has struggled in the court of popular opinion. The public tends to be quite wary of new government programs, especially before they’re in place. Once they’re up and running – like Medicare for example -they sometimes get a bit more popular. But proposing a new government program is generally a good way to get people fired up.

If you’ve been paying attention to the mundane details of the ACA, you know that there’s no new government-run health insurance plan. The public option got nixed from the healthcare reform strategy right from the beginning. The law does expand some of our public health programs that already exist (like Medicaid and CHIP). It seeks to insure most of the currently uninsured population via increased enrollment in private health insurance plans and expanded access to public health insurance. The individual mandate and guaranteed issue individual health insurance will hopefully result in far fewer people without health insurance. In addition, the provision that allows young people to remain on their parents’ health insurance through age 26 is helping to cut down on the number of young Americans without health insurance. […]

The Challenge Of Shopping Around For Healthcare

[…] Since most of us don’t have medical training, we might not even know the important questions to ask when we’re shopping around for healthcare. And even if we do, we also have to be able to discern whether the person we’re asking has any conflicts of interest (another excellent article in this week’s HWR from Dr. Roy Poses). Asking patients to have “skin in the game” sounds like a good idea until you really dig into what it means to be a healthcare consumer. Given the difficulty of comparing something as basic as prices for medical procedures – much less things like long-term safety and efficacy – it’s unlikely that patients can really be informed healthcare consumers unless things become a lot more transparent. More “skin in the game” probably just means patients pay more out of pocket for their healthcare (via higher health insurance deductibles and copays), or else put off healthcare until they can better afford it. Some might be shopping around, but it’s unlikely that many people are really able to be well-informed “comparison shoppers” yet – the information they would need just isn’t available.

The Subjective Nature Of The Affordability Of Health Insurance

[…] Health insurance is definitely not cheap. For those who qualify for programs like Medicaid and CHP+, the subsidized or free coverage is likely a lifesaver. But what about middle class families who don’t qualify for public health insurance, but for whom health insurance premiums are a budget buster? Why is health insurance more of a priority for one family than for another (to the point that one family will cut their budget in other areas, like clothing and vacations and vehicles, in order to keep paying for their health insurance)? Is it all about personal experience? If you’ve had a medical scare or have a loved one who has had significant medical bills (especially at a young age, or for an out-of-the-blue medical condition), are you more likely to rearrange your priorities to make health insurance affordable, regardless of your income? If you’ve always been healthy, are you more likely to see health insurance as a money-pit and opt to spend your money elsewhere?

We know that the percentage of our income that is being spent on healthcare has climbed significantly over the past decade. For a lot of people, it’s becoming a much more significant monthly expense than it used to be. But whether or not it’s “affordable” really depends on the person being asked.

Will The Colorado Health Benefits Exchange Be Integrated With Public Assistance Programs?

[…] Last summer, lawmakers in Colorado were concerned that federal requirements that visitors to the exchanges be screened for eligibility for Medicaid, CHIP and federal health insurance subsidies would increase enrollment in Colorado’s safety-net health insurance programs. Given the budget woes that those programs have had, the lawmakers were hesitant to make the exchange a “one stop shop” for public assistance programs. But much has also been said about the importance of integrating the exchanges with public benefits programs in order to close the gaps that people can fall into if their incomes fluctuate between eligibility for federal health insurance subsidies and eligibility for Medicaid. This proposal calls for the exchange and the public benefits programs to be interoperable as of January 1, 2014 and integrated as of December 15, 2015. For the sake of simplicity and protecting the needs of low-income families, it seems that the more seamless we can make the health insurance enrollment process (particularly for those who go back and forth between Medicaid and private health insurance), the better.

It will be interesting to see how the separate/interoperable/integrated scenarios for the health benefits exchange and Colorado’s public assistance programs play out over the next couple years as the exchange is created and implemented.