Transparency in healthcare: The case for an employer bill of rights

medical-costs

This article was published on January 31, 2019 on Employee Benefit News, written by Steve Kelly.

Today more than ever before, benefits and human resources professionals are struggling to provide their teams with quality coverage at affordable rates. Costs have skyrocketed for the more than 150 million Americans who receive healthcare coverage through their workplace — more than doubling since 2008, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Private health spending by businesses has steadily grown year after year and accounts for 20% of the $3.3 trillion of total health spending in the U.S. Businesses are finding that they can’t afford to wait any longer. They need to take control of their healthcare costs and seek resources to make changes to the plans they currently offer.

With the complexities surrounding the decision-making process for benefits programs, businesses often feel unaware, or worse yet, misled when it comes to their foundational rights regarding health plans.

Enter the Employer Bill of Rights — an initiative to help business owners empower themselves to learn and exercise the basic rights often overlooked in today’s healthcare system and take an activist role as they investigate and select healthcare options.

Knowledge is power

The employer bill of rights is rooted in the mission that every business owner needs to take responsibility for providing the best possible benefits program to their employees. Businesses can utilize the employer bill of rights as a tool and learn how to pay for healthcare like any other business expense.

With the employer bill of rights, employers are empowered to:

1. Pay a fair amount for healthcare.
Healthcare costs are often the second largest operating expense after employee wages. Employers do not have to accept the status quo for their health plan and pay significantly inflated medical expenses.

2. Know what healthcare services actually cost.
A traditional PPO health plan typically leaves the employer in the dark about how plan parameters were set by the insurer and medical provider. Businesses have a right to know the cost of medical services.

3. Audit medical bills.
Billing mistakes and inflation of medical charges are common. Businesses and individuals have a right to carefully evaluate healthcare expenses. A line-by-line auditing of medical bills helps ensure the charges are accurate and fair.

4. Explore your health plan options.
By partnering with an informed and experienced healthcare consultant, employers can discover health plan options beyond the traditional PPO model. A self-funded health plan, where employers pay for medical claims as services are rendered instead of providing ongoing and advanced payments to an insurance company, can take employers on the path toward more control over healthcare spending.

Self-funding is on the rise, with the number of businesses deciding to self-insure increasing by nearly $37 between 1996 and 2015, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

5. Offer your employees a comprehensive and affordable benefits program.
Employees count on their employer-sponsored health plans to be reliable and financially feasible. Employers have a right to offer healthcare solutions that minimize the financial burden on the plan member.

6. Design a health plan to meet your unique needs.
The best health plans are well-rounded and flexible. Employers have the right to customize their health plan to determine the approach that best suits the needs of their business and team. Unlike traditional health plans, self-funded plans are customizable.

7. Defend the best interests of your business and your employees when paying for healthcare.
Surprise medical bills and inflated prices are common, but healthcare finances do not have to be handled alone. Employers and individuals have the right to access advocacy services that support fair and reasonable healthcare payments and help employers meet their fiduciary responsibility.

8. Make direct connections with providers and health systems.
Fair outcomes can be achieved when people work together. By creating direct partnerships with providers and health systems in their communities, employers can become good stewards of healthcare by building bridges and driving quality healthcare experiences for all.

The path to activism

Change in healthcare is possible when businesses take charge and challenge the status quo. As we continue to see the rise of self-funded health plans, the growth of reference-based, or metric-based, pricing is following suit.

The reference-based pricing approach starts at the bottom with an actual cost amount, then adds a fair profit margin to calculate a total cost of service. Simply stated, it allows employers to utilize rational limits of payment to medical providers instead of relying on the traditional PPO model.

Businesses can be activists for change by standing up against out-of-control healthcare costs, and they can start by adopting the employer bill of rights and investigating reference-based pricing. By innovating their healthcare solutions and turning away from insurance plans which have failed to adapt to the changing healthcare landscape, business owners have the opportunity to improve the health plans they offer their employees, transform their bottom line and help spark reform for businesses across the country.

why-diversified-group

Who says your health plan has to cost 5% more every year?

men shaking hands

Done right, self-funding provides the flexibility needed to control costs.

A 2018 Kaiser Employer Survey showed that the cost of employer-based, family coverage rose to $19,616, an increase of 5 percent from the prior year. While this increase may be considered moderate or acceptable by many employers, we work hard to help our self-funded clients raise the bar (or in this case lower the bar).

In contrast to fully-insured plans, partial self-funding gives employers the freedom to write their own plan document. This enables our clients to adopt a totally different mindset – a “take charge” attitude that not only allows a plan to meet employees’ needs but encourages members to do what they can to keep costs in check.

After focusing on plan design and cost management, we turn our attention to claims data. While others may be quick to pay claims, we help clients look closely at claim costs each month. We use the data to identify trends, treatment patterns or chronic conditions that have the potential to result in a high dollar claim. When we see something that raises a red flag, we go to work on it immediately, looking for ways to minimize costs while striving to achieve the best possible outcome.

The bottom line is that sitting back and hoping that healthcare costs won’t increase next year will not accomplish a thing. Managing the rising cost of healthcare takes know-how, expert administration and the ability to act when cost saving opportunities surface. These are the things we do for our clients each and every day. To raise the bar for your health plan, give us a call at your convenience.

Tell Us How You Feel!

dg-healthcare-uncensored

IRS Publishes PCOR Fees through September 2019

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Trust Fund fee is a fee on issuers of health insurance policies and plan sponsors of self-insured health plans that helps to fund the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), which was established by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The institute assists, through research, patients, clinicians, purchasers and policy-makers, in making informed health decisions by advancing the quality and relevance of evidence-based medicine. The institute compiles and distributes comparative clinical effectiveness research findings. Under the ACA, all medical plans are responsible for paying the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research fee to the IRS, based on the number of plan participants. If the plan is insured, the insurance carrier pays the fee on behalf of the policyholder. If the plan is self-insured, the employer/plan sponsor must file the Form 720 for the second quarter and pay the fee to the IRS directly.

The IRS recently published its PCOR fee for policy and plan years ending January through September 2019 and the applicable dollar amount is $2.45, which is multiplied by the number of covered lives determined for the appropriate period.

The PCOR program will sunset in 2019. The last payment will apply to plan years that end by September 30, 2019 and that payment will be due in July 2020. There will not be any PCOR fee for plan years that end on October 1, 2019 or later.

The PCOR fee is paid by the health insurer for fully insured plans. All self-insured medical plans, including health FSAs and HRAs must pay the fee unless they are considered an excepted benefit:

    • A health FSA is an excepted-benefit as long as the employer does not contribute more than $500/year to the accounts and offers another medical plan with non-excepted benefits.
    • An HRA is an excepted-benefit if it only reimburses for excepted-benefits (e.g., limited-scope dental and vision expenses or long-term care coverage) and is not integrated with the group medical plan.

The PCOR fee is calculated off the average number of lives covered during the policy year. That means that all parties enrolled will have to be accounted for such as dependents, spouses, retirees, and COBRA beneficiaries. Depending on when the plan starts and ends also can determine the fee per form. Participating employees and dependents are counted as covered lives. For HRA and health FSA plans, just count each participating employee as a covered life.

Clients who have elected to have Diversified Group assist with the PCOR fee calculation can expect an email in June 2019 which will include a copy of the completed Form 720 and a PCOR calculation worksheet with supporting documentation. For the current year, clients will need to file the Form 720 by July 31, 2019.

why-diversified-group

There’s More to Know About AHPs

bundled-costsMany employers will find it interesting that AHPs will continue to be categorized as MEWAs – Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangements. This consideration will make association health plans subject to some state regulations that severely restrict the formation of self-funded MEWAs.

Having to comply with the rules of each state will make AHPs more difficult to organize. While associations can create a plan that extends across state lines, they will have to follow the rules of the state they are in that has the most restrictive laws. As an example, an AHP based in New Jersey that extends into New York would still have to follow the more restrictive laws of New York.

Even though the regulations are more restrictive than many would like, AHPs should enable many small employers to offer their employees better health benefits at more affordable rates.

why-diversified-group

 

Pharma cash flows to doctors for consultant work despite scrutiny

This article was published on January 6, 2019 on ctmirror.org, written by Sujata Srinivasan.

ctmirror-toppayments

Image Source: ctmirror.org

With physicians’ compensation from pharmaceutical and medical device companies under increasing scrutiny, payments to doctors in Connecticut for consultant work rose to $8.5 million in 2017, up from $8 million in 2016.

Payments for meals, travel and gifts also increased from $3.2 million in 2016 to $3.5 million in 2017, data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services show.

Of the total $27.2 million in payments, $4.37 million – or 16 percent – went to 10 doctors holding licenses in Connecticut.

The highest paid doctor was Dr. Paul Sethi, an orthopedic surgeon in Greenwich, who accepted slightly more than $1 million in 2017 in royalty fees, consulting work, and other services from several companies, including Arthrex Inc., and Pacira Pharmaceuticals Inc., maker of Exparel. The drug, Exparel, is marketed as an alternative to opioid painkillers post-surgery. Sethi frequently takes to Twitter to promote the use of a non-opioid alternative and is listed on the Pacira website in a case study. He did not respond to C-HIT’s request for an interview.

Dr. Robert Alpern, dean of the Yale School of Medicine, received $524,611 for his work as a director on the boards of Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie Inc. Alpern said that he does not provide paid lectures, does not speak for the pharmaceutical companies, does not see patients or write prescriptions, and that his work on the boards is “fully disclosed to Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital.”

“I recuse myself from any decisions related to either of these companies,” Alpern said.

The financial relationships between pharmaceutical and medical device companies and doctors, as well as teaching hospitals, have been disclosed since 2013, under the Affordable Care Act. The law is intended to provide transparency into the business connections between health care providers and the industry.

The law is also driving some doctors—like infectious diseases specialist Dr. Roger Echols of Easton—to give up their license to practice medicine. “It’s why I did not revive mine last year,” he said, referring to 2016.

Echols was paid $526,881 in 2017 for his work as a consultant primarily for Japan-headquartered Shionogi & Co., best known as the maker of the cholesterol drug Crestor. Echols said he stopped seeing patients and prescribing medication years ago, when he transitioned to the pharmaceutical industry.

Even practicing doctors, Echols said, are now declining payment when they meet with him to discuss drug research. “They’ve gone so far that they won’t even allow us to provide a bagel or a cup of coffee at a meeting because that has to be reported.”

Overall, non-research payments to Connecticut doctors fell 8 percent from $29.7 million in 2016 to $27.2 million in 2017, the data show. Much of the decline occurred in royalty and license fees on sales of drugs and medical devices, charitable contributions, and ownership or investments in companies.

In research payments to Connecticut doctors, pharma and medical device companies paid $901,196 in 2017, down from $1.1 million in 2016, according to the data.

Nationally in 2017, doctors were paid $2.82 billion by 1,525 pharma and medical devices companies. Research payments totaled $4.66 billion.

Dual role of doctors

The dual role of doctors as providers of health care to patients and marketers for drug and medical device companies has been scrutinized for several years and has been the subject of extensive research.

One report, published in a medical cancer journal that examined several studies concluded, “All the money and attention drug representatives shower on doctors has its intended effect: building relationships with doctors and ultimately changing how they prescribe.”

A study published in October 2017 by the U.S. Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health; found that gifts from pharmaceutical companies result in higher drug costs: “More prescriptions per patient, more costly prescriptions, and a higher proportion of branded prescriptions.”

“There is strong evidence that pharma payments are associated with higher prescribing of the promoted medications, and with higher costs,” said Ellen Andrews, executive director of the Connecticut Health Policy Project.

Dr. Bruce E. Strober, a professor of dermatology at UConn Health, said, “Nearly all my colleagues—anybody who is a specialist in the field—do speak for drug companies, and I am compensated for my time, yes. Unequivocally, it does not alter my prescribing habits.”

Strober received $174,279 in 2017 primarily in consulting fees from Eli Lilly and Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Sanofi Genzyme, Novartis Pharma AG and Amgen Inc., among others. In 2016, the latest year on record, Strober made out 61 prescriptions for Amgen’s Enbrel amounting to $239,996, according to a C-HIT analysis of Medicare Part D data.  The same year, Amgen paid him $17,000.

Many doctors see their role as merely educating their peers, and being compensated for their time and expertise.

Dr. Mark Milner, an ophthalmologist in Hamden, received $186,125 in 2017 primarily in consulting and speaking fees from pharma companies specializing in dry eye, including Allergan Inc., maker of the blockbuster drug Restasis.

“There is nothing unethical if I am paid for my time. I give a comprehensive dry eye lecture whether I’m sponsored by Allergan, or Shire [North] or Bausch [formerly Valeant],” Milner said.

Dr. Steven Thornquist, a Waterbury-based ophthalmologist and former president of the Connecticut State Medical Society (CSMS), said, “The onus is on the individual physician to be ethical. I don’t think patients should give their doctor the third degree.”

It’s a fine line. Dr. Claudia Gruss, CSMS president, said physicians should decline a cash gift. “At the same time, there are certain physician experts that other physicians look up to, and educational events allow a very frank interchange between physicians in the field. We don’t want to decrease productive collaboration.” In 2017, Gruss received $120.94 in the general category – the category includes food and beverage at medical conferences.

Dr. Niranjan Sankaranarayanan, a nephrologist in Bloomfield, does not accept money for consulting and speaking engagements from pharma companies, though he did earlier in his career. “I was naïve. They invited me to talk about a medication that I was already prescribing, but after one or two talks, I didn’t feel comfortable,” he said. “This is a gray zone. They entice you with more and more, and there is no ceiling to this,” Sankaranarayanan said.  He received $201.60 in general category in 2017.

Medical ethicists say the public must know that their physicians very often have complex interests. “Medicare has databases but more research needs to be done on incentives ad kickbacks,” said Dr. Howard Forman, a Yale professor of diagnostic radiology, economics and public health, who often speaks about medical ethics.

“We have to prove cause-causation rather than correlation. It’s pernicious how the money flows,” said Forman.

dg-pharmasense-blog-cta

Why The U.S. Remains The Most Expensive Market For ‘Biologic’ Drugs In The World

women-biologics

This article was published on December 19, 2018 on NPR.org, written by Sarah Jane Tribble. Photo Source: NPR.org.

Europeans have found the secret to making some of the world’s costliest medicines much more affordable, as much as 80 percent cheaper than in the U.S.

Governments in Europe have compelled drugmakers to bend on prices and have thrown open the market for so-called biosimilars, which are cheaper copies of biologic drugs often derived from living organisms.

The brand-name products — ranging from Humira for rheumatoid arthritis to Avastin for cancer — are high-priced drugs that account for 40 percent of U.S. pharmaceutical sales.

European patients can choose from dozens of biosimilars — 50 in all — which have stoked competition and driven prices lower. Europe approved the growth hormone Omnitrope as its first biosimilar in 2006, but the U.S. didn’t follow suit until 2015 with cancer-treatment drug Zarxio.

The U.S. government generally stops short of negotiating prices and drugmakers with brand-name biologics have used a variety of strategies — from special contracting deals to overlapping patents known as “patent thickets”— to block copycat versions of their drugs from entering the U.S. or gaining market share.

As a result, only six biosimilars are available for U.S. consumers.

European countries don’t generally allow price increases after a drug launches and, in some cases, the national health authority requires patients to switch to less expensive biosimilars once the copycat product is proven safe and effective, says Michael Kleinrock, research director for IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science.

If Susie Christoff, a 59-year-old who suffers from debilitating psoriatic arthritis, lived in Italy, the cost of her preferred medicine would be less than quarter of what it is in the U.S., according to data gathered by GlobalData, a research firm.

Christoff tried a series of expensive biologics before discovering a once-a-month injection of Cosentyx, manufactured by Swiss drugmaker Novartis, worked the best.

Without the medicine, Christoff says her fingers can swell to the size of sausages.

“It’s 24/7 constant pain in, like, the ankles and feet,” says Christoff, who lives in Fairfax, Va. “I can’t sleep, [and] I can’t sit still. I cry. I throw pillows. It’s just … awful.”

At first, Christoff’s copay for Cosentyx was just $50 a month. But when a disability led her to switch to a Medicare Advantage plan, her out-of-pocket costs ballooned to nearly $1,300 a month — more than three times her monthly car loan.

Christoff, with the help of her rheumatologist, Dr. Angus Worthing, tried Enbrel, Humira and other drugs before finding Cosentyx, the only drug that provides relief.

Christoff’s case is “heartbreaking,” Worthing says. Continue reading

Ben Barnes Unplugged

ben-barnes

This article was published on December 13, 2018 on CT News Junkie, written by Jack Kramer. Photo Source: CT News Junkie.

HARTFORD, CT — Outgoing Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes believes two powerful groups — hospitals and municipalities — are the biggest obstacles to Connecticut’s fiscal stability.

Barnes made that statement during a far-ranging discussion Thursday at the Connecticut Voices for Children 18th Annual State Budget Forum.

Barnes joked that he could be so candid because he is resigning his position in a few weeks when Governor-elect Ned Lamont replaces his boss, Dannel P. Malloy.

“It’s the kind of thing you can say when you are two weeks away from the end of service.”

Acute care hospitals, Barnes said, “have used their virtuous status to somehow strengthen their demand for resources that the state cannot afford.”

He said hospitals are a “group that gets what they want virtually all the time.” He said they are the only group he knows of that is able to dedicate all the taxes they pay “right back to their own bottom line.”

He said if the state loses the lawsuit filed against it by most of Connecticut’s hospitals, it will cost the state $4 billion. The lawsuit, which was filed in 2016, challenges the taxing structure the state created for the hospitals. It’s still making its way through the court system and no decisions have been made.

As far as municipalities are concerned, Barnes was just as direct, stating legislators need a change of attitude.

Barnes, who once worked for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the city of Stamford, and the schools in Bridgeport, said he knows that won’t be easy — “I used to work in local government.” But he said until legislators look at the bigger picture of the entire state and not just their own town, Connecticut will have budget problems.

Right now, Barnes said, “no town can ever get less than what they got the year before.”

“We are spending a lot of money on communities that have plenty of money,” he went on.

He cited the Teachers Retirement System as the best example of a system that needs to be fixed.

Currently, the state funds the teacher retirement program. Attempts by the Malloy administration to have the towns pick up some of that cost was met with a huge backlash.

The annual contribution to the Teachers’ Retirement System is about $1.3 billion, but could top $3.25 billion to $6.2 billion by 2032, depending on various experts, because of years of underfunding. Connecticut didn’t start setting aside money to pay for teachers’ retirements until around 1982.

Barnes said the state, sooner or later, has to deal more directly with the fact that more affluent communities such as Greenwich, Weston, and Westport need less state funding than poorer communities such as Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport.

“We tried to re-stack the deck to put more resources into neediest communities but it was dead on arrival,” Barnes said. “My parting hope is that majority of legislators will look at this issue again. There is enough money but we are currently spending it on people who don’t need it as much.”

In answer to a question from the audience about the issue of how municipalities could find savings, Barnes said the state needs to get serious about regionalization.

He said the legislature should “compel mergers” perhaps offering incentives to do so. He called that the “kind of big idea” that Connecticut needs to be thinking about, having municipalities with hundreds of thousands instead of a few thousand people with regional police, health, and school districts.

Barnes also talked at length about the issue of state pensions. He said he felt that state workers were unfairly “scapegoated” for the problem.

He said while there are some examples of very high pensions being paid to state employees, the average state pension is about $38,000.

“Local government pensions are way better,” the OPM secretary said. He said those who work in the private sector also retire with much better pensions than the average state worker.

Besides, Barnes said, there is a moral obligation involved.

“The law of the land is that when somebody retires with a pension they have a right to that pension,” Barnes said. “We can’t renege on our deal to employees.”

He said even if there was a legal way found to tear up state pension agreements, “Why on earth would we want to do that? These are folks who are cleaning up after our elderly parents or our grandparents. The idea that we would walk away from that is reprehensible.”

Barnes said while he believes that the budget will be in good hands with Lamont in charge and the newly-elected legislature, he also said he’s worried that the 2019 budget was built with what he termed “one-time sweeps” that will create a $630 million hole that will need to be filled in next year’s budget.

“It’s going to create a huge problem for 2020,” Barnes said.

Barnes did say there was some good news, too.

He said the state has seen a 10 percent increase in the withholding portion of the income tax over the past few months — much higher than has been budgeted.

The state is on track “to see some of the most robust growth” in revenue than it’s seen in the past decade, he said.

Accomplishments over the past eight years that he is particularly proud of include Medicaid and criminal justice reform.

“Crime is down, prison population is down,” Barnes said. He added that the state has also made strides in having greater civil rights and eliminating the death penalty.

Connecticut has also had the best results in the nation when it comes to controlling the per member, per month costs of Medicaid recipients.

“We are a national model,” Barnes said.

He referred to Connecticut as a place “I’m proud to call home.”

Barnes recently landed a new job as chief financial officer for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.

why-diversified-group