Cost Increases Outpace Wages

The Kaiser Family Foundation employee health benefits survey for 2019 shows that the cost of annual premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance plans have reached $20,576. While there are differences between small and large employer groups, costs are rising faster than wages for both and average contributions by employees have reached $1,242 for single coverage and more than $6,000 for families. And while wages have increased by 26% in the past decade, contributions to healthcare premiums have gone up 71%.

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Vertical Integration Driving Costs Higher

medical-moneyA recent study in the State of Texas revealed that when health systems acquire physician practices, patient costs go up. The study was in response to a wave of consolidations across all facets of healthcare, from institutions to individual physician practices. Results showed that the share of physician practices owned by hospitals in Texas rose from 14% in 2012 to 29% in 2016.

When two years of claims data was analyzed, it showed that PPO members spent nearly 6% more when treated by doctors in hospital-owned practices, versus physician-owned practices. A breakdown revealed that higher costs were attributable to additional services being provided rather than higher fees. Higher costs for imaging, durable medical equipment and operating and recovery room use were common contributors, with no evidence of improved quality shown.

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Communicate Better. Benefit More.

Communication and helping plan members get the most out of their health plan should be an all year round endeavor. Surveys continue to indicate that even highly educated employees describe benefits, insurance and the enrollment process as “very confusing.”

Consider academic research by the Commonwealth Fund and a recent study by Accenture. While one points to higher deductibles and co-pays as the leading financial barrier to medical care, the other cites low health literacy as a hidden cost adding billions in administrative expense to our healthcare system. While it may never be possible for your plan to do away with co-pays and deductibles, high performance TPAs are doing many things to help plan members make more informed healthcare decisions. Here are a few ideas.

1. Simplify Summary Plan Descriptions – Remember that these are more than compliance documents. They are communication pieces and need to be written so that regular people can read them. Make it easy for employees to find information on eligibility, how they enroll, what the plan covers, what isn’t covered and how to file a claim. Move as much legal information as humanly possible to the end.

2. Put an End to Boring Content – To make things easier on the eyes and draw attention to information people care about, use different kinds of headings and add visuals or infographics to any benefit-related communications. Include links to your TPA’s website or other websites that employees can learn from. You don’t need a Hollywood producer to use video clips and after all, video is pretty much all that younger people look at these days. Seriously!

3. Create a Decision Support Taskforce – It sounds challenging, but look outside HR to recruit a team of individuals who feel comfortable with your health plan and healthcare in general. Let people know they can reach out to these individuals with questions about plan options, coverage, how to file a claim, provider networks, etc. People will appreciate this, especially your younger employees, who studies show are particularly confused and stressed over everything insurance related.

Improving your communications can make people feel much more confident about the decisions they have to make. You don’t have to tackle everything at once and even a little progress will improve morale and help people avoid making decisions they may regret later.

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Older Workers and Medicare

medicareIt’s doubtful that many technology companies are concerned about employees nearing age 65. Other employers, however, may want to brush up on Medicare eligibility in order to help older workers understand their options and avoid any potential gap in coverage. Here are just a few Medicare-related concerns:

  • For employees who will lose access to employer-sponsored group health coverage at age 65 or who choose to sign up for Medicare upon becoming eligible, the Initial Enrollment Period (IEP) is 3 months before to 3 months after the month they turn 65.
  • Medicare-eligible workers who leave employment with a retiree health plan or COBRA coverage are classified as “former workers” and therefore need to enroll in Medicare during their IEP.
  • Employees who have enrolled in Social Security before their 65th birthday will automatically be enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B. In order to avoid paying for 2 health plans, they may need to inform the Social Security Administration that they do not want Medicare Part B at this time.
  • Finally, for companies with fewer than 20 employees, Medicare becomes primary coverage. Workers and/or their spouses who are 65 or older must enroll in Medicare Parts A & B.

While employees must enroll in Medicare on their own, a little help from HR can go a long way. When questions about Medicare eligibility and enrollment arise, never hesitate to encourage a visit to a local Social Security Administration office or Medicare.gov.

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Surprise Bills

A survey of individual healthcare consumers shows that the lack of cost transparency is taking a big toll, with more than half of respondents saying they have passed on doctor visits or prescriptions because of cost. The vast majority of those foregoing treatment cite the cost of higher deductibles and copays as the top concern along with consistently rising prescription drug costs.

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HSAs Become More Flexible

hsaCurrently, patients with high deductible health plans and health savings accounts have to pay for treatment of chronic illnesses out-of-pocket until they have reached their required deductible. According to IRS Notice 2019-45, those with chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma, will reduce their financial burden prior to reaching their health plan deductible.

The notice, which becomes effective on January 1, 2020, states that the service or item needed must be low cost and supported by medical evidence showing that it will prevent the chronic condition from getting worse or causing other related health issues.

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Moving Patients Can Be a Win-Win

From hospitals to insurers, you’ve probably heard many say that the goal is to provide the right healthcare, at the right time, in the right place. When it comes to the infusion of high-priced specialty drugs, location can make a huge difference. As an example, the variance in the cost of hospital-administered multiple sclerosis drugs can be staggering. One third party administrator saved a self-funded health plan more than $30,000 by moving a patient from a local hospital to a beautiful treatment facility in the Cayman Islands. The patient not only received their prescription in a beautiful, clean, state-of-the-art facility, but air travel and lodging were included.

Other cases compare the administration of specialty drugs in independent physician offices and patient’s homes rather than hospital outpatient settings. Savings ranged from $16,000 to $37,000 annually and the patient received the same level of personalized care without the hassle of a hospital visit. While the patient’s condition and circumstances always take precedence, finding a more appropriate location for treatment can make a positive difference for the plan and the patient.

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Small Groups Will Celebrate New HRAs

The IRS recently published finalized rules easing restrictions on health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) to allow employers to provide their workers with tax-preferred funds to pay for the cost of health insurance coverage they buy in the individual market. The regulation is part of the Trump Administration’s commitment to deliver more health coverage choices to Americans.

The HRA rule should be extremely valuable to small businesses that have had a really hard time providing group health coverage. So hard, in fact, that the Kaiser Family Foundation Employer Health Benefits Survey recently reported that the percentage of businesses with 25 to 49 workers offering group coverage has fallen from 92% to 71% since 2010.

Two New Options Will Be Available
Effective January 1, 2020, employers will be able to help employees buy individual health insurance policies by offering two different tax free HRAs. The first is an Individual Coverage HRA, which can only be offered to similar classes of workers when a traditional group health plan is not currently available. Classes refer to groups of employees with similar circumstances, such as full-time, part-time, seasonal, salaried, temporary, etc. A class must include at least 10 employees for employers with fewer than 100 employees and 20 or more employees for employers of 200 or more workers.

The other option, an Excepted Benefits HRA, is designed to be offered with a traditional group health plan, although employees do not have to enroll in the health plan. The maximum annual benefit for an Excepted Benefits HRA is $1,800.

Tax-Preferred Benefits Can Extend to Millions
The new HRA rules will make it easier for small businesses to compete with larger organizations that provide high quality group health benefits. More importantly, the employees who buy individual health plans financed by a new HRA will receive the same tax advantages as those with traditional group coverage.

The Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Treasury estimate that HRA expansion will benefit as many as 800,000 employers and more than 11 million employees and family members, 800,000 of whom will have been previously uninsured. To learn more about these new HRAs as you begin your planning for 2020, contact your account representative at your convenience.

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Judge Rules Against Drug Price Disclosure

prescriptionIn a very recent decision, a federal judge ruled against Trump Administration efforts to require drug manufacturers to include the price of prescription drugs in their television commercials. Filed in federal court in mid-June, the lawsuit claimed that HHS does not have the legal power to enforce the rule and that including prices will mislead patients and discourage them from seeking treatment. In the decision rendered on July 9th, U.S. District Court Judge Amit P. Mehta agreed, adding that the administration had overstepped its authority.

A spokesman for HHS was quoted as saying “we are disappointed in the court’s decision and will be working with the Department of Justice on next steps.” While the decision is a blow to the administration’s efforts to increase cost transparency and drive down drug prices, many expect their efforts to continue.

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