MONEY Health Care

Why You Could Get Stuck Paying for More of Your Health Care

Red traffic light
Your insurer may put a stop to how much it will spend on your surgery. iStock

A growing number of companies are capping what your insurance will pay for certain medical procedures. Get more expensive care, and you could be on the hook for the extra.

Aiming to contain health care costs, a growing number of employers and insurers are adopting a strategy that limits how much they’ll pay for certain medical services such as knee replacements, lab tests and complex imaging. A recent study found that savings from such moves may be modest, however, and some experts question whether “reference pricing,” as it’s called, is good for consumers.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), which administers the health insurance benefits for 1.4 million state workers, retirees, and their families, has one of the more established reference pricing systems. More than three years ago, the agency began using reference pricing for elective knee and hip replacements, two common procedures for which hospital prices varied widely without discernible differences in quality, says Ann Boynton, CalPERS’ deputy executive officer for Benefit Programs Policy and Planning.

Working with Anthem Blue Cross, the agency set $30,000 as the reference price for those two surgeries in its preferred provider organization plan. Members who get surgery at one of the 52 hospitals that charge $30,000 or less pay only their plan’s regular cost-sharing. If a member chooses to use an in-network hospital that charges more than the reference price, however, they’re on the hook for the entire amount over $30,000, and the extra spending doesn’t count toward their annual maximum out-of-pocket limit, Boynton says.

“We’re not worried about people not getting the care they need,” says Boynton. “They have access to good hospitals, they’re just getting it at a reasonable price.”

In two years, CalPERS saved nearly $6 million on those two procedures, and members saved $600,000 in lower cost sharing, according to research published last year by James C. Robinson, a professor of health economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Berkeley Center for Health Technology. Most of the savings came from price reductions at expensive hospitals.

The agency recently set caps on how much it would spend for cataract surgery, colonoscopies, and arthroscopic surgery, Boynton says.

Experts say that reference pricing is most appropriate for common, non-emergency procedures or tests that vary widely in price but are generally comparable in quality. Research has generally shown that higher prices for medical services don’t equate with higher quality. Setting a reference price steers consumers to high-quality doctors, hospitals, labs and imaging centers that perform well for the price, proponents say.

Others point out that reference pricing doesn’t necessarily save employers a lot of money, however. A study released earlier this month by the National Institute for Health Care Reform examined the 2011 claims data for 528,000 autoworkers and their dependents, both active and retired. It analyzed roughly 350 high-volume and/or high-priced inpatient and ambulatory medical services that reference pricing might reasonably be applied to.

The overall potential savings was 5%, the study found.

“It was surprising that even with all that pricing variation, reference pricing doesn’t have a more dramatic impact on spending,” says Chapin White, a senior policy researcher at RAND and lead author of the study.

Even though the results may be modest, a growing number of very large companies are incorporating reference pricing, according to benefits consultant Mercer’s annual employer health insurance survey. The percentage of employers with 10,000 or more employees that used reference pricing grew from 10% in 2012 to 15% in 2013, the survey found. Thirty percent said they were considering adding reference pricing, the survey found. Among employers with 500 or fewer workers, adoption was flat at 10% in 2013, compared with 11% in 2012.

The approach is consistent with employers’ general interest in encouraging employees to make cost-effective choices on the job, whether for health care or business supplies, says Sander Domaszewicz, a principal in Mercer’s health and benefits practice.

This spring, the Obama administration said that large group and self-insured health plans could use reference pricing.

The health law sets limits on how much consumers have to pay out of pocket annually for in-network care before insurance picks up the whole tab—in 2015, it’s $6,600 for an individual and $13,200 for a family plan. But if consumers choose providers whose prices are higher than a plan’s reference price, those amounts don’t count toward the out-of-pocket maximum, the administration guidance said.

Leaving consumers on the hook for amounts over the reference price needlessly drags them into the battle between providers and health plans over prices, says White.

“You expect the health plan to do a few things: negotiate reasonable prices with providers, and not to enter into network contracts with providers who provide bad quality care,” White says. “Reference pricing is kind of an admission that health plans have failed on one or both of those fronts.”

Some experts, however, say the strategy can work for consumers.

“What I think is that reference pricing is a choice-preserving strategy, when you look at the alternative, which is a narrow network,” says Robinson.

That may be a question of semantics, if relatively few providers meet the reference price.

Recent guidance from the administration spells out some of the requirements that health plans must meet in order to ensure that there are adequate numbers of high-quality providers if reference-based pricing is used. Among other things, it suggests that plans consider geographic distance from providers or patient wait times.

Like so much about reference pricing, it remains a work in progress. The administration says it will continue to monitor the practice, and may provide additional guidance in the future.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY Medicare

Some Medicare Advantage Plans Have Hidden Risks—Here’s How to Avoid Them

hands using measuring tape
Nils Kahle

Although they promise quality care at lower cost, some Medicare Advantage plans fall short. Before you enroll, here are key questions to ask.

Seniors have flocked to Medicare Advantage in recent years, attracted by savings on premiums and the convenience of one-stop shopping. But as the annual Medicare enrollment season began this week, a memorandum from federal officials to plan providers surfaced that serves as a big red warning flag.

The upshot: Assess the quality of any Advantage plan before you sign up.

The memorandum, first reported by the New York Times, described ongoing compliance problems uncovered in federal audits of Advantage and prescription drug plans. These include inadequate rationales for denial of coverage, failure to consider clinical information from doctors and failure to notify patients of their rights to appeal decisions. The audits also uncovered problems with inappropriate rejection of prescription drug claims.

Advantage is a managed care alternative to traditional fee-for-service Medicare. It rolls together coverage for hospitalization, outpatient services and, usually, prescription drugs. Advantage plans also cap your out-of-pocket expenses, making Medigap supplemental plans unnecessary.

The savings can be substantial. Medigap plan premiums can cost $200 monthly or more, and stand-alone drug plans will average $39 a month next year. Enrollees have been voting with their wallets: 30% are in Advantage plans this year, up from 13% in 2005, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Advantage plans are subject to strict rules and regulations, and must cover all services offered in original Medicare, with the exception of hospice services. Some offer extra coverage, such as vision, hearing, dental and wellness programs.

And there is evidence that the quality of these plans is rising. Medicare uses a five-star rating system to grade plan quality, and plans can earn bonus payments based on their ratings. Average enrollment-weighted star ratings increased to 3.92 for 2015, from 3.86 in 2013 and 3.71 in 2013, according to Avalere Health, an industry research and consulting firm. Avalere projects that 60% of Advantage enrollment will be in four- or five-star plans next year, up from 52% this year.

But the Medicare memorandum focuses on problems outside the rating system. “It’s about basic blocking and tackling and whether a plan adheres to the program’s technical specs,” says Dan Mendelson, Avalere’s chief executive officer. “These are the basic functions that every plan should be able to handle.”

Nevertheless, consumer advocates say they deal with these compliance problems regularly, and more often with enrollees in Advantage than in traditional Medicare.

“The most typical problems have to do with plans that are making it difficult or impossible for people to get their medications,” says Jocelyn Watrous, an advocate for patients at the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “They impose prior authorizations or other utilization management rules that they make up out of whole cloth.”

Consumer advocates urge Medicare enrollees to restrict their shopping this fall to four- and five-rated plans, of which plenty are available in most parts of the country. “If a plan consistently gets four or five stars, all other things being equal it will be a high performer,” says Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center.

Few Medicare enrollees roll up their sleeves to shop, however. A study by Kaiser found that, on average, just 13% of enrollees voluntarily switched their Advantage or drug plans over four recent enrollment periods. And focus groups with seniors conducted by the foundation last May found that few pay attention to the star ratings.

“Seniors said they don’t use the ratings because they don’t feel they reflect their experiences with plans,” said Gretchen Jacobson, associate director of the foundation’s Medicare program. “Even when we told them that their plan only has two stars, many just wanted to stay in that plan.”

Advocates say the star ratings are just a starting point for smart shoppers.

They say you should check to make sure health providers you want to see are in a plan’s network. You should also consider how you would react if any of those providers disappeared during the 12 months that you are locked into the plan. Advantage plans can—and do—drop providers. UnitedHealth Group, the industry’s largest player, made headlines last year when it dropped thousands of doctors in 10 states. Advantage plans in Florida, Pennsylvania, California and Delaware also terminated provider relationships.

Also be sure to examine the prescription drug “formularies” in your plan—the rules under which your medications are covered. And talk with your doctors about any plan you are considering, especially if you see specialists for a chronic condition.

The Medicare memorandum to plans also underscores the importance of appealing denied claims, Baker says. “Appeal, appeal, appeal—it’s like ‘location, location, location’ in real estate.”

TIME Health Care

The Price of Staying Alive For the Next 3 Hours

Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price
Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price ZU_09; Getty Images

A new study suggests a little spending now can buy you a lot of time later

How much do you reckon you’d pay not to be dead three hours from now? That probably depends. If you’re 25 and healthy, a whole lot. If you’re 95 and sickly, maybe not so much. But for people in one part of the world—the former East Germany—the cost has been figured out, and it’s surprisingly cheap: three hours of life will set you back (or your government, really) just one euro, or a little below a buck-thirty at current exchange rates.

That’s the conclusion of a new study out of Germany’s Max Planck Institute, and it says a lot about the power of a little bit of money now to save a lot of suffering later—with implications for all manner of public health challenges, including the current Ebola crisis.

The new findings are a result of one of the greatest, real-time longitudinal studies ever conducted, one that began the moment the Berlin Wall fell, on Nov. 9 1989. Before that year, there were two Germanys not just politically, but epidemiologically. Life expectancy in the western half of the country was 76 years; in the poorer, sicker east, it was 73.5. But after unification began, social spending in the East began rising, from the equivalent of €2,100 per person per year to €5,100 by the year 2000. In that same period, the difference in lifespan across the old divide went in the opposite direction, shrinking from 2.5 years to just one year as the east Germans gained more time. Crunch those numbers and you get the three extra hours of extra life per person per euro per year.

“Without the pension payments of citizens in east and west converging to equivalent levels,” said Max Planck demographer Tobias Vogt in a statement, “the gap in life expectancy could not have been closed.” Increased public spending, Vogt adds, is often framed as an unfortunate knock-on effect of longer life. “But in contrast,” he says, “our analysis shows that public spending can also be seen as an investment in longer life.”

The idea that generous, tactical spending now can be both a money-saver and lifesaver is one that health policy experts tirelessly make—and that people in charge of approving the budgets too often ignore. Bill Gates often makes the point that $1 billion spent to eradicate polio over the next few years will save $50 billion over the next 20 years, not just because there will no longer be any cases of the disease to treat, but because the global vaccination programs which are necessary just to contain the virus can be stopped altogether when that virus is no more.

As TIME reported in September, British inventor Marc Koska made a splash at the TEDMed conference in Washington DC when he unveiled his K1 syringe—an auto-destruct needle that locks after it’s used just once and breaks if too much force is used to pull the plunger back out. That prevents needle re-use—and that in turn not only reduces blood-borne pathogens from being spread, it does so at a saving. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), $1 spent on K1 syringes saves $14.57 in health care costs down the line—or $280 for a $20 order of the shots.

All across the health care spectrum, such leveraging is possible. Critics of the Affordable Care Act have slammed the law for the cost of the preventative services it provides, and while it’s way too early to determine exactly how successful the law will be, the encouraging stabilization in the growth of health costs suggests that something, at least, is working.

Global health officials are making a similar, though more urgent, preventative argument concerning the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Americans are rightly jumpy over the few cases that have landed on our shores, but the 1,000 new infections per week that are occurring in the hot-spot nations of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone make our concerns look small. Frighteningly, according to the WHO’s newest projections, that figure will explode to 10,000 cases per week by December if the resources are not deployed to contain the epidemic fast.

“We either stop Ebola now,” WHO’s Anthony Banbury said in a stark presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 14, “or we face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we do not have a plan.”

Suiting up and wading into the Ebola infection zone is a decidedly bigger and scarier deal than spending an extra euro on public health or an extra dollar for a new syringe. But the larger idea of intervention today preventing far larger suffering tomorrow remains one of medicine’s enduring truths. We lose sight of it at our peril.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 15

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Americans are often oblivious to the role of farming in their lives. To get the smart policies needed to feed our nation and the world, we must reconnect people to agriculture.

By Ian Pigott in the Des Moines Register

2. Even employer-paid health insurance can worsen poverty and increase inequality.

By David Blumenthal in Commonwealth Fund

3. Is “feminist marketing” an oxymoron?

By Chandra Johnson in the Deseret News

4. Helsinki has a plan cities everywhere could try: Combine the sharing economy, transit and mobile technology to eliminate cars.

By Randy Rieland in Smithsonian

5. America’s best bet in Africa is a strong relationship with Nigeria.

By Daniel Donovan in Foreign Policy Blogs

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY health insurance

Why You May Have to Spend More on Health Care Next Year

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Larry Washburn—Getty Images/fStop

When open enrollment kicks off at your workplace this fall, you should see only modest premium hikes. But you'll also come across more plans with higher out-of-pocket costs and surcharges to cover your spouse.

Fall is enrollment season for many people who get insurance through their workplace. Premium increases for 2015 plans are expected to be modest on average, but the shift toward higher out-of-pocket costs overall for consumers will continue as employers try to keep a lid on their costs and incorporate health law changes.

Experts anticipate that premiums will rise a modest 4% in 2015, on average, slightly higher than last year but lower than typical recent increases.

“That’s really low,” says Tracy Watts, a senior partner at benefits consultant Mercer.

Even so, more employers say they’re making changes to their health plans in 2015 to rein in cost growth; 68% said they plan to do so in 2015, compared with 55% just two years earlier, according to preliminary data from Mercer’s annual employer benefits survey.

They are motivated in part by upcoming changes mandated by the health law. Starting in January, companies that employ 100 workers or more generally have to offer those who work at least 30 hours a week health insurance or face penalties.

“The more people you cover, the more it’s going to cost,” says Watts.

In addition, experts say, employers are ramping up efforts to avoid a 40% excise tax on expensive health plans—those with premiums that exceed $10,200 for individuals or $27,500 for families—that will take effect in 2018.

More employees can expect to be offered high-deductible health plans linked to health savings accounts or health reimbursement arrangements in 2015. Nearly three-quarters of companies with more than 1,000 workers offer such plans, according to the 2014 Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health employer health care survey. Nine percent said they planned to add them in 2015.

For a growing number of employees, those plans may be the only ones available through work. For 2015, 30% of large employers said they expected to offer only an account-based plan to workers, nearly double the percentage that did so in 2014, the Towers Watson/NBGH survey found.

For some consumers, however, those plans raise concerns about the cost of care. A new survey by The Associated Press and the NORC Center For Public Affairs Research found that people with high deductible plans were twice as likely as those with traditional health insurance to report that they did not go to a doctor when sick or injured because of concerns about the costs.

When employers shift toward plans with higher deductibles, they often try to sweeten the deal for employees by offering to put money into the financial accounts to help defray the workers’ increased cost, says Brian Marcotte, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health. The extra cash—an average $600 per employee—is often tied to wellness activities such as agreeing to get health screenings, says Marcotte. As employees evaluate their health plan offerings this fall, it’s worth checking to see if such incentives are offered.

Also this year, workers may find it increasingly expensive to cover their spouses, especially if they have coverage available through their own jobs.

Employers have been increasing workers’ costs to cover dependents, including spouses, in recent years. Nearly half of employers say they’ve hiked employee contributions for dependent coverage, and another 19% plan to do so in 2015, according to the Towers Watson/NBGH survey. Upcoming increases are particularly aimed at spouses, including $50 to $100 monthly surcharges for spousal coverage, says Sandy Ageloff, a senior consultant at benefits consultant Towers Watson.

“Legally under the Affordable Care Act, plans can’t exclude coverage for kids,” says Ageloff. “But they’re really trying to shift the onus back on to spouses.”

This fall, employees who work for small businesses may see fewer changes in their coverage than those who work for large companies. In March, the Obama administration announced that individuals and small businesses with plans that didn’t comply with health law coverage and cost requirements could be extended until 2017.

As many as 80% of companies with up to 50 employees opted to renew their non-compliant plans for 2014, says David Chase, national health care policy director at the Small Business Majority, an advocacy group. A similar percentage will likely try to do so this year as well, he says.

“That’s going to be a popular option for folks, if their states allow it,” Chase says. It’s up to states to determine whether insurers can continue to sell small group plans that don’t meet the requirements of the health law.

There could be a downside, however. “Sticking with the same plan doesn’t mean sticking with the same premium,” Chase says. “Those premiums could go up more than ACA-compliant plans.”

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY retirement planning

8 Things You Must Do Before You Retire

sébastien thibault

Getting ready to retire? The moves you make in the months before you call it quits can smooth the way to a secure future.

After working diligently for more than 30 years—so you could set yourself up financially for your golden years—the glow of retirement is finally on the horizon. Alas, it’s not time to relax just yet.

Each day more than 10,000 baby boomers enter retirement. Yet only around one-quarter of workers 55 and older say they’re doing a good job preparing for the next phase, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The last 12 months before you call it a career is especially critical to putting your retirement on a prosperous path. It’s time to get your portfolio, health care, and other finances in order so you can enjoy your new life.

THE TURNING-POINT CHECKLIST

12 Months Out:

Dial back on stocks now. You still need the growth that equities provide, but even a 15% market slide in the year before you retire can erase four years’ worth of income. Cap stock exposure to around 50% in your sixties, advises Rande Spiegelman, vice president of financial planning at Schwab Center for Financial Research.

Raise cash. Your paychecks are about to stop. So as you downshift from stocks, move that money into a savings or money market account to fund at least one year of expenses, says Judith Ward, T. Rowe Price senior financial planner.

Set a realistic retirement budget. Use the worksheet on Fidelity’s free retirement-income planner to list all of your fixed and discretionary expenses. Then use T. Rowe Price’s free retirement-income calculator to see how safe that level of spending is likely to be, based on the size of your nest egg and age.

6 Months Out:

Play out Social Security scenarios. You can claim Social Security at 62, but if you can hold off until 70 your checks will be 76% bigger. Tool around FinancialEngines.com’s free Social Security Income Planner to find the best strategy for you.

Figure out how you’ll pay for health care. Check if your company offers retirees medical, long-term care, and other insurance coverage. If you won’t get health insurance and aren’t yet 65 (when you qualify for Medicare), then compare plans offered via the Affordable Care Act at eHealthInsurance.com. Or use COBRA, where you can stay on your employer plan up to 18 months after leaving.

3 MONTHS OUT:

Begin the rollover process. In a small 401(k) plan, average fund expenses can run north of 0.6% of assets. You can cut those fees at least in half by shifting into index funds at a low-cost IRA provider. See if your plan provides free access to investment advisers to help you decide.

Sign up for Medicare. Nearing 65? You can enroll for Medicare up to three months before turning that age. Also, figure in supplemental plans to cover expenses that Medicare does not, such as dental care and prescription drugs.

Get a running start. Put your post-career itinerary into action. Research volunteer groups that you want to join, reach out to contacts if you plan to keep a hand in work, start a new exercise routine, or begin planning that big trip.

MONEY health insurance

You Can Now Buy Health Insurance at Walmart. Should You?

America's largest retailer is expanding more aggressively into the insurance market, hoping to become the go-to place for all your health care needs. But the store is far from the only place to get your coverage questions answered.

UPDATED: 5PM ET

Want help choosing a health insurance plan? Superstore Walmart is betting that many consumers do—and that they will visit a big-box store for guidance.

The company announced this morning that it is teaming up with the health comparison website DirectHealth.com to house insurance agents in 2,700 of its 4,300 U.S. stores. The agents will help shoppers understand and compare individual insurance plans as well as private Medicare plans, including drug, supplemental, and Advantage policies.

The agents will be in stores from this Friday, October 10, through December 7, a time frame that captures the kick-off of the annual enrollment periods for both individual health plans and private Medicare policies. Medicare open enrollment starts October 15; you can begin shopping for an individual policy for 2015 on November 15.

“For years, our customers have told us that there is too much complexity when it comes to understanding their health insurance options,” said Labeed Diab, president of Walmart’s U.S. health and wellness group, in a press release announcing the program. Since 2005, Walmart has hosted insurance agents from individual insurers in some stores to answer questions and enroll customers in health plans. This new program expands on that.

A bid for more health care business

This move isn’t the first time Walmart has dabbled in health care. The company has been slowly adding retail clinics to many of its locations, letting shoppers get primary care such as strep tests and treatment for ear infections at the store. Walmart’s total number of clinics, though, falls far short of what pharmacy chains CVS or Walgreens offer.

By adding insurance agents to its stores, the retailer appears to be aiming to get consumers to think of Walmart as a one-stop resource for health care. Walmart will not receive commissions on the sale of health plans, the Associated Press reports, but hopes the agents will attract consumers who will then rely on the stores for other health care needs, such as prescriptions. The agents will receive a commission from the insurers whenever a patient enrolls in a plan in the store, The Washington Post reports.

Where else to get help

In announcing the program, Walmart noted that many consumers have difficulty understanding their health plans. While that’s true, Walmart will be just one of many places where you can find guidance. Other comparison websites, such as ehealthinsurance.com and gohealthinsurance.com, already offer online and call-in assistance, though neither have retail locations around the country.

So should you head to Walmart face-to-face help with an individual or Medicare plan? The store will offer individual plans from 300 carriers, and Medicare plans from 13 firms. So you should be able to find options in your area. But keep in mind what other help is out there.

•For individual health insurance plans: Unless you qualify for a special enrollment period because you, say, lost your employer-based coverage or got divorced, you are generally locked out from buying a new individual health insurance plan or switching policies until the annual open enrollment period, which this year begins November 15 and runs through February 15. You’ll be able to buy a policy either through your state insurance exchange (find yours at healthcare.gov), an insurer, a comparison website, or an insurance agent.

Once open enrollment begins, many community centers and non-profits around the country will be staffed with counselors, navigators, or other assisters who can offer explain a plan’s details (though many aren’t supposed to tell you which plan is best for you). Find a group offering assistance in your area at localhelp.healthcare.gov. For questions about a plan sold on the public exchange, Healthcare.gov lists the 1-800 number for your state.

Unless you qualify for a subsidized policy under Obamacare (in which case you may be required to buy through an exchange), you should compare policies on the exchanges with those sold directly by insurers. You can find a local insurance agent who can sell you an on- or off-exchange individual policy at nahu.org. Comparison websites also list details for both types of plans, though there’s no guarantee every off-exchange plan available from an insurer will be listed on each site.

One caveat: the in-store agents will be able to explain plan details and help with comparison shopping, but they won’t be able to actually enroll you in an individual plan in the store, according to a Walmart spokesperson. To sign up you’ll need to call Direct Health, Walmart’s partner, or go to the website. (The agents will be able to enroll you in a Medicare plan while you’re in the store.)

Keep in mind that while DirectHealth.com is required by law to list every plan available through the exchange, it won’t necessarily include the full details for each plan. Instead, the site attempts to determine which plans may best suit you, says Michael Mahoney, senior vice president of marketing at GoHealth, which powers the DirectHealth.com comparison site. “We want to make sure people have the right amount of choice without overwhelming them,” he says. You decide if you’d rather see all your options, or only a limited choice.

•For private Medicare plans: You can make changes to your Medicare drug or Medicare Advantage plan starting on October 15. It is a good idea to analyze your current plan and new options every year instead of sticking with what you’ve got, since plans and premiums change and new options appear.

The Medicare Rights Center offers a national help line (800-333-4114) to help seniors understand the program and determine if their income qualifies them for other resources, such as a prescription drug subsidy. Your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program offers one-on-one assistance to Medicare beneficiaries and their families. Find your state’s at shiptalk.org.

The medicare.gov tool run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services lets you compare plans in your local area. This tool also lists every possible plan available to you, which is not the case with Walmart’s program. For example, a 67-year-old woman who lives in one Northern California zip code and takes no drugs has 11 Part D prescription drug plans options listed on DirectHealth.com. On medicare.gov, that same woman would find more than 30 choices.

 

MONEY Medicare

One Simple Way for Retirees to Save on Prescription Drugs

Hand picking one pill out of a row of pills
If you don't shop around for a drug plan, you may be leaving money on the table. Julie Toy—Getty Images

Just over one in 10 seniors decide to switch Medicare drug plans during fall open enrollment. But nearly half of those who do save money. Here's how to shop for the best deal.

Your Medicare prescription drug plan sent you a letter recently. Chances are, you didn’t read it—and that could be costing you money.

Health insurance companies must send an annual notice of changes for the coming year to Part D prescription drug and Part C Medicare Advantage plans. The notice, which must be delivered to you by Sept. 30 each year, details changes in premiums and co-pays, and lets you know whether your medication will be covered in the year ahead.

The notice comes just before the annual plan enrollment period, which kicks off on Oct. 15 and runs until Dec. 7. It’s your signal that it’s time to re-shop your coverage.

But a study released last fall by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that, on average, just 13% of enrollees voluntarily switched their drug plans over four recent enrollment periods. The switching rate is nearly identical for those in Medicare Advantage plans, the all-in-one managed-care option offered to Medicare beneficiaries.

That’s unfortunate, since plenty of people are leaving money on the table. The Kaiser study found that 46% of plan switchers saved at least 5% the following year, mainly on premiums.

Seniors who use traditional fee-for-service Medicare need only check on their drug coverage. Most Medicare Advantage plans wrap in drug coverage, so enrollees can usually make a single shopping trip there, too.

Medicare cost inflation has been moderate for several years, and should remain so in 2015. The average Part D premium will drop from $39.88 in 2014 to $38.95 next year, according to Avalere Health, a research and consulting firm.

But a close look at the 10 most popular plans shows why it is important to evaluate coverage annually. Premium changes will vary significantly. For example, average premiums for Aetna’s Medicare Rx Saver plan will fall 31%, while WellCare’s Classic plan will jump 52%, on average.

Plenty of low-cost options are available. Five of the top plans will have premiums under $30, led by Humana/Walmart Rx, which will have an average premium of $15.67.

“It’s an ongoing pricing game,” says Dan Mendelson, Avalere’s chief executive officer. “The plans always try to price as low as possible and below the market and then they are forced to increase premiums. It means that now, more than ever, people need to go out and shop and take a careful look at what they are paying.”

Premiums aren’t the only factor to consider. Fewer drug plans will have zero deductibles next year, Avalere reports. It’s also important to make sure the drugs you take are covered—and under what circumstances.

In many cases, the best deals will be offered by plans using preferred pharmacy networks, so make sure the pharmacy option is convenient for you, because drugs will be more expensive if you use non-preferred delivery options.

Finally, pay attention to how your drugs will be covered if you enter the “doughnut hole,” the coverage gap that begins after you and your drug plan have spent a certain amount for covered drugs. Most plans don’t include gap coverage, and those that do charge higher premiums. But the size of the gap is being shrunk under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, and is scheduled to disappear in 2020.

Next year the gap starts at $2,960 (up from $2,850 this year) and ends after you’ve spent $4,700 (up from $4,550 this year).

Seniors who enter the gap also get discounts on brand-name and generic drugs, and those breaks will be larger next year. Enrollees will pay 45% of the cost of brand-name drugs in 2015 (down from 47.5% this year) and 65 percent of the cost of generic drugs (down from 72% this year).

How to get help

Use the online Medicare Plan Finder tool to find plans that match your needs. You also can call Medicare (1-800-Medicare) for assistance with plan selection.

“If you’re not comfortable going online, they can review your medications and match up plans with you,” says Frederic Riccardi, director of client services for the Medicare Rights Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Riccardi advises people to purchase plans through Medicare, rather than going directly to the plan providers. “It creates an administrative record at Medicare of what you wanted to do, in case of any problems with your enrollment.”

Free one-on-one help is available from your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), a network of non-profit Medicare counseling services.

The Medicare Rights Center also offers free counseling by phone (1-800-333-4114).

MONEY Medicare

What You Need to Know About Medicare Open Enrollment

Pharmacy
You can shop for a new drug plan starting October 15. Getty Images—Getty Images

Your once-a-year chance to change your drug coverage or switch plans begins in two weeks. Here's what to expect.

Medicare beneficiaries who want to make changes to their prescription drug plans or Medicare Advantage coverage can do so starting Oct. 15 during the Medicare’s program’s annual open enrollment period. There will be somewhat fewer plans to pick from this year, but in general people will have plenty of options, experts say.

And although premiums aren’t expected to rise markedly overall in 2015—and in some cases may actually decline—some individual plans have signaled significantly higher rates. Rather than rely on the sticker price of a plan alone, it’s critical that beneficiaries compare the available options in their area to make sure they’re in the plan that covers the drugs and doctors they need at the best price.

The annual open enrollment period is also a once-a-year opportunity to switch to a private Medicare Advantage plan from the traditional Medicare fee-for-service plan or vice versa. Open enrollment ends Dec. 7.

Although the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has released some specifics about 2015 premiums and plans, many details about provider networks, drug formularies and the like won’t be available until later this fall. Here’s what we know so far:

Standalone Prescription Drug Plans

The number of Part D standalone prescription drug plans (PDPs) will drop 14%, to 1001 plans. This is the smallest number of offerings since the Medicare Part D program began in 2006.

Even so, “seniors across the country will still have a choice of at least two dozen plans in their area,” says Tricia Neuman, director of the Program on Medicare Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

The drug plan consolidations that are driving the reductions in choices will likely shift many beneficiaries into lower cost plans, resulting in an average premium decline of 2%, to $38.95, according to an analysis by Avalere Health.

But that overall average premium obscures significant price hikes by some of the biggest plans. The average premium for the WellCare Classic plan, for example, will increase 52% in 2015, to $31.46, while the Humana Walmart RxPlan premium will rise 24%, to $15.67, according to Avalere.

Insurers are expected to continue to shift more costs to beneficiaries next year. The percentage of PDP plans with no deductible will decline to 42% from 47%, and, once again, about three quarters of plans won’t offer any coverage in the “donut hole”— the coverage gap in which beneficiaries are responsible for shouldering a greater share of their drug costs.

Underscoring the importance of evaluating plan options, 70% of standalone drug plan members will likely see their premiums increase if they stick with the same plans in 2015, says Ross Blair, senior vice president for eHealthMedicare.com, an online vendor.

Seniors, though, have historically not voluntarily switched plans in great numbers during annual enrollment. Between 2006 and 2010, on average only 13% did so, according to a 2013 analysis by researchers at Georgetown University, KFF and the University of Chicago.

Medicare Advantage

Enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans continues to grow: 30% of Medicare beneficiaries are now in the private plans, which typically are managed care plans that often provide additional benefits such as vision and dental coverage. Concerns that Medicare Advantage plans would disappear in large numbers as the health law gradually reduces their payments to bring them in line with the traditional Medicare program have proven unfounded to date. In 2015, the number of plans will drop by 3%, to 2,450, continuing a gradual decline.

“You still have lots of plans and robust selection,” says Caroline Pearson, vice president at Avalere Health, a research and consulting firm. Some parts of the country appear to be harder hit by plan reductions than others, including the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions, Pearson says.

Medicare Advantage coverage has always been concentrated in health maintenance organizations, and this trend will continue in 2015. The number of HMOs will increase by 1.5%, to 1,747, while the number of preferred provider organizations will drop by nearly 9%, to 541, according to Avalere. About two-thirds of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries are currently in HMOs, while 31% are in PPOs.

The average premium will increase by $2.94 to $33.90, but nearly two-thirds of beneficiaries won’t see any premium increase, according to CMS. Like standalone drug plans, however, fewer Medicare Advantage drug plans will offer no deductibles and gap coverage, according to Avalere.

“It’s one example of how plans are tightening up coverage,” and pushing more costs onto consumers, says Pearson.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY Health Care

Why Your New Health Plan Might Not Cover Hospital Stays

Person in hospital bed
Companies that haven't offered health coverage before are the most likely candidates to roll out hospital-free plans now. Blend Images—Alamy

A debate is growing over whether an Obamacare calculator really lets some employers offer health insurance without hospital coverage. Is this a software glitch, or a giant loophole in the law?

Lance Shnider is confident Obamacare regulators knew exactly what they were doing when they created an online calculator that gives a green light to new employer coverage without hospital benefits.

“There’s not a glitch in this system,” said Shnider, president of Voluntary Benefits Agency, an Ohio firm working with some 100 employers to implement such plans. “This is the way the calculator was designed.”

Timothy Jost is pretty sure the whole thing was a mistake.

“There’s got to be a problem with the calculator,” said Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University and health-benefits authority. Letting employers avoid health-law penalties by offering plans without hospital benefits “is certainly not what Congress intended,” he said.

As companies prepare to offer medical coverage for 2015, debate has grown over government software that critics say can trap workers in inadequate plans while barring them from subsidies to buy fuller coverage on their own.

At the center of contention is the calculator — an online spreadsheet to certify whether plans meet the Affordable Care Act’s toughest standard for large employers, the “minimum value” test for adequate benefits.

The software is used by large, self-insured employers that pay their own medical claims but often outsource the plan design and administration. Offering a calculator-certified plan shields employers from penalties of up to $3,120 per worker next year.

Many insurance professionals were surprised to learn from a recent Kaiser Health News story that the calculator approves plans lacking hospital benefits and that numerous large, low-wage employers are considering them.

Although insurance sold to individuals and small businesses through the health law’s marketplaces is required to include expensive hospital benefits, plans from large, self-insured employers are not.

Many policy experts, however, believed it would be impossible for coverage without hospitalization to pass the minimum-value standard, which requires insurance to pay for at least 60% of the expected costs of a typical plan.

And because calculator-approved coverage at work bars people from buying subsidized policies in the marketplaces that do offer hospital benefits, consumer advocates see such plans as doubly flawed.

Kaiser Health News asked the Obama administration multiple times to respond to criticism that the calculator is inaccurate, but no one would comment.

Calculator-tested plans lacking hospital benefits can cost half the price of similar coverage that includes them.

While they don’t include inpatient care, the plans offer rich coverage of doctor visits, drugs and even emergency-room treatment with low out-of-pocket costs.

Who will offer such insurance? Large, well-paying employers that have traditionally covered hospitalization are likely to keep doing so, said industry representatives.

“My members all had high-quality plans before the ACA came into existence, and they have these plans for a reason, which is recruitment and retention,” said Gretchen Young, a senior vice president at the ERISA Industry Committee, which represents very large employers such as those in the Fortune 200. “And you’re not going to get very far with employees if you don’t cover hospitalization.”

But companies that haven’t offered substantial medical coverage in the past — and that will be penalized next year for the first time if they don’t meet health-law standards — are very interested, benefits advisors say.

They include retailers, hoteliers, restaurants and other businesses with high worker turnover and lower pay. Temporary staffing agencies are especially keen on calculator-tested plans with no hospital coverage.

“We’ve got many dozens of staffing-firm clients,” said Alden Bianchi, a benefits lawyer with Mintz Levin in Boston. “All of them are using these things.”

Advisors and brokers declined to identify employers sponsoring the plans, citing client confidentiality.

Benefits administrators offering the insurance say it makes sense not only for employers trying to comply with the law at low cost but for workers who typically have had little if any job-based health insurance.

“This is a stepping-stone to bring in employers who have never [offered] coverage and now they’re willing to come forward and do something,” said Bruce Flunker, president of Wisconsin-based EBSO, a benefits firm.

The plans are an upgrade for many workers at retailers, staffing agencies and similar companies, he said.

“OK, if I go to the hospital I don’t have coverage,” he said. “But I don’t have [hospital] coverage now. And what I get is a doctor. I can go to a specialist. I get a script filled at the pharmacy. I get real-life coverage.”

Companies considering such plans include a restaurant chain with 1,000 workers, a trucking firm with 500 employees and dependents, a delicatessen, a fur farm and firms working the oil boom in upper Midwest, Flunker said.

Employer interest in the plans “is definitely picking up pretty quickly,” said Kevin Schlotman, director of benefits at Benovation, an Ohio firm that designs and administers health coverage. “These are organizations that are facing a significant increase in expenses. They’re trying to do their best.”

Because hospital admissions are rare, plans paying for routine care are more valuable to low-wage workers than coverage of expensive surgery and other inpatient costs, say consultants offering them.

Such plans come with deductibles as low as zero for doctor visits and prescriptions and co-pays of only a few dollars, they say. Emergency-room visits cost members in the $250 or $400 range, depending on the plan.

By contrast, health-law-approved insurance with inpatient benefits often includes deductibles — what members pay for all kinds of care before the insurance kicks in — of $6,000 or more.

Generous coverage of routine care is “what these people want,” said Shnider. “They want to be able to go to the doctor. Take care of their kids, go to the emergency room.”

In some cases, employers sponsoring calculator-approved plans without hospital coverage also offer “fixed indemnity” coverage that does pay some hospital reimbursement, advisors say. But the benefits are typically a small fraction of hospital costs, leaving members with the likelihood of large bills if they are admitted.

Concerned for their reputations, larger administrators are wary of managing benefits without hospitalization, even if they do pass the calculator.

“Our self-funded customers hand out insurance cards to their employees with Blue Cross all over it,” said Michael Bertaut, health care economist at BlueCross BlueShield of Louisiana, which has no plans to handle such coverage. “Do we really want someone to present that card at a hospital and get turned away?”

There are two health-law coverage standards that large employers must meet to avoid paying a penalty.

One, for “minimum essential coverage,” merely requires some kind of employer medical plan, no matter how thin, with a potential penalty next year of up to $2,080 per worker. Many low-wage employers are meeting that target with “skinny” plans that cover preventive care and not much else, say brokers and consultants.

The calculator tests the health law’s second, more exacting standard — to offer a “minimum value” plan at affordable cost to workers. Failure to do so triggers the second penalty, of up to $3,120 per worker.

The argument over the calculator is whether plans carving out such a large chunk of benefits — hospitalization — can mathematically cover 60% of expected costs of a standard plan.

They probably can’t, Jost said. The fact that the calculator gives similar, passing scores to plans with hospital benefits and plans costing half as much without hospital benefits suggests that it’s flawed, he said. Plans with similar scores should have similar costs, he said.

On the other hand, others ask, why did the administration make a calculator that allows designers to leave out inpatient coverage? Why didn’t the law and regulations require hospital coverage for self-insured employers — as they do for commercial plans sold through online marketplaces?

“The law and calculator were purposely designed as they are!” Fred Hunt, past president of the Society of Professional Benefit Administrators, said in an email widely circulated among insurance pros. “No ‘glitch’ or unintended loophole.”

“That’s baloney,” said Robert Laszewski, a consultant to large insurers and a critic of the health law. “Nobody said we’re going to have health plans out there that don’t cover hospitalization. That was never the intention… I think they just screwed up.”

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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