Archive for April, 2020

EXAMPLE OF A HEALTHCARE PRISON; Health Insurers Prosper As COVID-19 Deflates Demand For Elective Treatments

Published by: Kaiser Family Foundation

As doctors and consumers are forced to put most nonemergency procedures on hold, many health insurers foresee strong profits.

So why is the industry looking to Congress for help?

Insurers say that while that falloff in claims for non-COVID care is offsetting for now many insurers’ costs associated with the pandemic, the future is far more fraught.

Costs could remain modest or quickly outstrip savings. A recession could drive revenue down. Or the coronavirus could resurge next winter and spike treatment expenses.

All that uncertainty for the companies could trigger far higher premiums for consumers, if insurers hedge their bets. Then again, the current savings insurers are seeing — along with cautions from state regulators about pushing cost-sensitive customers away during an economic downturn — might result in minimal premium increases.

“Insurers are nervous, to be sure,” said Michael Kreidler, Washington state’s insurance commissioner. “But so far they are telling me they are in good shape. Coronavirus claims have not been that high — yet.”

Backing that assessment was a report out last week by credit rating agency Moody’s, which looked at a range of pandemic scenarios — from mild to severe — and concluded “U.S. health insurers will nonetheless remain profitable under the most likely scenarios.”

Earlier this month, UnitedHealth Group CEO David Wichmann told analysts that cost reductions so far are outstripping expenses for COVID-19 and that revenue is up compared with the previous year. He expects — barring a worsening situation — the rest of the year’s earnings to match projections. Other insurers, including Centene, Anthem, Humana and Cigna, are scheduled to release earnings reports this week.

If these results are repeated across the insurance industry, there will be pressure on insurers to hold down rate increases for next year and do more for policyholders, such as constrain the growth in deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs, said consumer advocates, regulators and policy experts.

“The last thing we need is insurers pricing their coverage unnecessarily high at a time like this,” said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, the health insurance marketplace in that state for people who buy their own coverage because they don’t get it through their job.

That prediction comes as tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs — and often their health insurance.

Those thrown out of work may be able to stay on employer coverage through a federal law called COBRA, but it’s expensive and workers have to foot the bill. Insurers and employers have asked Congress for relief legislation to fully cover COBRA costs.

Losing a job is also a qualifying event to enroll in an Affordable Care Act plan — and, again, the industry has asked lawmakers to temporarily boost subsidies to help enrollees pay their premiums. Some states that run their own ACA marketplaces have reopened enrollment to help the uninsured get coverage.

The industry also wants Congress to authorize temporary financial support to help cover insurers that face “extraordinary, unplanned costs in 2020 and 2021,” according to a letter sent to lawmakers from America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

To help, some states are giving insurers more time this year to submit their planned premium rates for 2021 — based on their expected costs — hoping things may be clearer by summer. California, for instance, is giving insurers until July to draw up their estimates.

One fear is that insurance actuaries, when faced with an unknown risk like the coronaviruswill price higher than needed, said Lee.

Setting premiums for next year is a balancing act. Insurers that calculate incorrectly and go too low will lose profits and may have to dig into their cash reserves to pay claims. If they set rates too high, they may run afoul of a provision in the ACA that requires insurers to issue rebates to policyholders if they don’t spend at least 80% of revenue on medical care.

And they don’t estimate well even in normal years. Early data for 2019 coverage shows insurers may owe a record amount in rebates, which will be paid out this year.

Insurers are not talking about next year’s premiums.

“We do not yet know the full scope, severity or duration of this outbreak. So we cannot know the ultimate cost of our members’ medical treatment or how long the postponement of non-urgent care will continue,” said Justine Handelman, senior vice president at the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

Early estimates, including a scary one from Covered California issued in late March, warned that costs associated with the coronavirus could drive premiums up 40% next year without federal help, based on initial models of the number of Americans who might fall seriously ill.

That report, though, did not take into account the effect of the sharp decline in elective care.

Thirty-one states have barred most elective surgeries, part of the effort by governors to promote social distancing to flatten the curve of the epidemic and to help prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

“The good news since we published that report is that it looks like efforts to flatten the curve are taking effect,” said Lee, so costs are more likely to be in the median rather than high end of the range.

The cost to insurers “all depends on the severity” of the continuing pandemic, said Dean Ungar, a vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s. “On the lower side, the industry will do quite well, and also even in a more median scenario, especially when you factor in the offsetting benefit of delayed procedures.”

Moody’s estimates that deferred elective procedures may account for as much as 20% to 40% savings on medical costs per month for many insurers as long as elective procedures are barred or patients are unwilling to seek nonemergency care.

Even so, “I don’t think the insurance industry as a whole has any intention of making money off this,” Ungar said. “There will be rebates or other things to help. Partly that’s the right thing to do and partly it’s good business.”

Former Cigna executive turned industry critic Wendell Potter disagreed. He tweeted earlier this month that UnitedHealth spent $1.7 billion during the first quarter to buy back its own stock — a move that helps the company. “In other words, they’re thriving during a pandemic,” Potter tweeted. Instead, he said, the insurer should plow that money into premium reductions or other help for policyholders.

For its part, UnitedHealth said it has waived patient cost sharing for COVID care — as have most other insurers — as well as accelerated payments for what it owes to doctors, and is helping provide loans to some clinics.

Some physician groups fear they are being left out, saying some of the savings seen by insurers and self-insured employers should be directed to those struggling after seeing their practices dry up as people avoid medical care or governors bar elective procedures.

“It’s a huge hit,” said Tom Banning, CEO and executive vice president of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians.

Lee agreed, warning that struggling front-line physicians, and especially family and primary care doctors, will need financial help.

“A bad outcome of all this will be if thousands of providers can’t make it financially and their practices get bought up by hospitals or private entities — creating more consolidation in health care, which is already driving costs up,” said Lee. “Lawmakers should be thinking about helping primary providers out.” COPY HTML

HOSPITALS ARE HEALTHCARE PRISONS: Amid Coronavirus Distress, Wealthy Hospitals Hoard Millions


Inova Health System, with campuses in some of the wealthiest suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Truman Medical Centers, a safety-net hospital in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, have little in common. But, today, they are confronting the same financial plague: mass cancellations of nonessential surgeries that are their biggest moneymakers while bracing for an expensive onslaught of coronavirus patients.

Yet Truman has less than a month’s worth of cash reserves to keep it afloat while Inova entered the outbreak with enough money to operate for at least 21 months, according to Inova’s financial disclosure for 2019, before the stock market decline. At that time, Inova told its bondholders it had $3.1 billion in investments it could liquidate within three days. Tapping any of that may never be necessary because Inova also drew down its entire $238 million line of credit earlier this year to prepare for the pandemic.

“At the end of the day, not all hospitals are created equal,” said Charlie Shields, Truman’s president and CEO. “If you were sitting on a year of … cash on hand, that would not be as challenging, but most safety-net hospitals are south of 25 days, and we’re probably around 10. How do you manage through that?”

But Dr. J. Stephen Jones, Inova’s president and CEO, said, “Our finances are a mess at this point,” with the system postponing non-urgent treatments and eliminating 427 administration and management positions.

“This is an existential threat to every health care organization, no matter how strong they come into it,” said Jones, who cut his own salary by 25%.

As the coronavirus wreaks havoc with hospital finances, wealthy hospitals sitting on millions or even billions of dollars are in a competitive stampede against near-insolvent hospitals for the same limited pots of financial relief. Those include the $175 billion bailout fund Congress allotted for health care providers as part of two recent coronavirus packages and loans from private ban

Certainly, even the richest hospitals are having their balance sheets despoiled by a triple punch: the stock market slump, the cost of preparation for coronavirus patients and the cessation of profitable surgeries, which is costing many hospitals half or more of their revenues. Inova, for instance, has spent $32 million to buy personal protective equipment and install negative air pressure systems in 200 hospital rooms, Jones said. (As of Monday morning, the system had 323 coronavirus patients.)

But unlike safety-net and smaller hospitals, many big health systems have the resources to stay afloat without financial assistance through the summer and beyond. Half of the 284 hospitals whose bonds Moody’s Investors Service rated in 2018 had enough cash on hand to cover six months or more.

They also don’t have to rely for survival on revenue from only treating patients. Before the stock market drop, 365 hospitals — about one of every 13 — reported an investment portfolio exceeding $100 million, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of hospital cost reports from 2018 filed with Medicare. Together, those investments pumped $2.8 billion into those hospitals that year.

“A lot of the big hospitals have developed fortress balance sheets since the financial crisis” of 2008, said Chas Roades, co-founder and CEO of Gist Healthcare, a consulting firm. “The reflex is to protect the operation.” But, he said, “if that’s a rainy day fund, it’s raining pretty hard right now.”

The wealthier hospitals face sacrifices that other hospitals might envy, such as having to postpone ambitious building projects or adding to their already large investment portfolios. They are less concerned with running out of money than with depleting their cash reservoirs so much that their credit ratings would be downgraded, which could lead to higher borrowing costs.

“Most would prefer to have a line of credit than liquidate a stock holding,” said Lisa Goldstein, an associate managing director at Moody’s.

UCHealth, a 12-hospital nonprofit system in Colorado, has temporarily stopped contributing to its investments, which as of the end of last year totaled more than $544 million in cash and liquid investments and $4 billion in long-term investments, according to its financial disclosure report. Even before the pandemic, it had been stockpiling extra cash to build an 11-story tower at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver that will cost $388 million, said Dan Rieber, UCHealth’s chief financial officer. The system has enough liquidity to operate for more than 300 days without any new income and has obtained new lines of credit.

But when large health systems draw down those lines of credit, it makes it harder for smaller hospitals to get private aid because lenders may be tapped out, said Christopher Kerns, a vice president at Advisory Board, a health care consulting firm. “In our own discussions with lenders, there’s only so much cash that’s available, and that is putting the squeeze on the small or midsize organizations, and they are finding themselves very crushed,” Kerns said.

The federal Health and Human Services Department has not made financial leeway assets a factor in deciding how it will distribute the $100 billion bailout fund passed in March. The department is doling out the first $30 billion based on how much each health care provider was paid by Medicare last year. The department plans to distribute the remaining money with an eye toward the prevalence of coronavirus infections in a hospital or region, and in the number of low-income and uninsured patients. The latest federal stimulus package — signed by President Donald Trump on Friday — added $75 billion to the relief fund.

“There isn’t a mechanism right now to distinguish between the exceedingly well-endowed hospitals and those that are struggling,” said Dan Mendelson, founder of the consulting company Avalere Health and a private equity investor.

The association representing safety-net hospitals, America’s Essential Hospitals, has urged that cash reserves be a factor in divvying up the money, which is widely viewed as insufficient to cover all hospitals’ costs. Some member hospitals have fewer than 10 days of cash reserves and run on average margins of 1.6%, a fifth of the industry average, according to the group.

“Our hospitals are struggling now to manage surging patient volume, staff and supply shortages, and other severe challenges as their limited cash reserves dwindle,” Dr. Bruce Siegel, the association’s president, said in a statement.

Certainly, even the wealthiest hospitals are seeing their robust balance sheets being turned upside down. Following the guidance of the federal government, UCHealth has postponed elective surgeries, leading to a drop in business of 50% to 60%. Elizabeth Concordia, UCHealth’s CEO, said the system expects that it will not completely rebound even when the pandemic has diminished because many older people will be reluctant to return for elective surgeries for fear they might become infected with the coronavirus.

She said UCHealth is also on the front lines of fighting the pandemic. It currently has admitted 240 COVID-19 patients, more than any other Colorado hospital, and has been analyzing tests for rural hospitals without yet setting a contract for how much it will be reimbursed. It has also maintained its 25,000-person workforce without imposing pay reductions or furloughs.

“COVID is having a devastating impact on all of our finances,” Concordia said.

But for those hospitals with their own wealth, investment earnings can provide a buffer that most hospitals don’t have. In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health led by Ge Bai found that nearly all investment earnings for nonprofit hospitals were earned by just a quarter of the hospitals. Without that amount, their aggregate net income would have been 31% lower.

Investment income made up 5% of the total revenue for Trinity Health, a 92-hospital Catholic system based in Michigan and operating in 22 states, according to its financial disclosures to bondholders covering the last six months of 2019. Those investment earnings of $468 million accounted for 58% of Trinity’s surplus.

As of December, Trinity had $9.6 billion in cash and investments, enough to operate for six months. It also reported credit lines totaling $1.2 billion. Trinity did not respond to requests for comment.

The wealthier hospital systems are strongly positioned to take full advantage of whatever method the government sets for distributing the remainder of the bailout funds. They employ more reimbursement staff and have in place sophisticated methods to document every expense that they can attribute to the coronavirus response, said Simone Rauscher Singh, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“The big hospitals are ramping up their capacity to document all this so they can go back later and say, ‘This is what we spent,’” she said. “The small hospitals are going to be in an even worse position to do that.”


Jordan Rau: [email protected]@JordanRau

In Fine Print, HHS Appears To Ban All Surprise Billing During The Pandemic

Federal officials offering emergency funding to hospitals, clinics and doctors’ practices have included this stipulation: They cannot foist surprise medical bills on COVID-19 patients.

But buried in the Department of Health and Human Services’ terms and conditions for eligibility is language that could carry much broader implications. It says “HHS broadly views every patient as a possible case of COVID-19,” the guidance states.

Some say that line could disrupt a longtime health care industry practice of balance billing, in which a patient is billed for the difference between what a provider charges and what the insurer pays, a major source of surprise bills ― which can be financially devastating ― for patients. It is banned in several states, though not federally.

For those immersed in the ongoing fight over surprise medical billing, the possibility that HHS might have done with fine print what Congress and the White House could not do with bipartisan support and ample public outrage caught some off-guard and raised questions about what exactly HHS meant.

As the first wave of $30 billion in payouts began to hit bank accounts last week, providers were asked to sign an online form agreeing to the government’s terms. Among those terms is that, “for all care for a possible or actual case of COVID-19,” the provider will not charge patients any more in out-of-pocket costs than they would have if the provider were in-network, or contracted with their insurance company.

The agreement is posted on the page.

“The intent of the terms and conditions was to bar balance billing for actual or presumptive COVID-19,” an HHS spokesperson said late Friday. “We are clarifying this in the terms and conditions.”

Lobbyists, advocates and other experts say the ambiguity could be enough to mandate that providers who accept federal funds have agreed not to send surprise medical bills to patients — whether or not they test positive for COVID-19.

“If you took the broadest interpretation, any of us could be a potential patient,” said Jack Hoadley, a professor emeritus of health policy at Georgetown University and former commissioner of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.

Last week, as HHS released an initial draft of its terms and conditions for the emergency funds allocated by Congress in the CARES Act, the Trump administration startled many in health care by declaring that providers would have to agree not to send surprise bills to COVID-19 patients for treatment. A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

But the blanket assertion by health officials that “every patient” is considered a COVID-19 patient, offered without further clarification, seems to go beyond the administration’s announcement and open the door to lawsuits over whether HHS intended to ban balance billing entirely.

“Because the terms and conditions do not appear to be sufficiently clarified, there is a concern that there will be legal challenges around the balance-billing provision,” said Rodney Whitlock, a health policy consultant and former Senate staffer.

Some providers and others in the health care industry have fought tooth and nail to safeguard their control over what they can bill patients for care. Dark-money groups, later revealed to be connected to physician staffing firms owned by profit-driven private equity firms, spent millions last summer to buy political ads targeting members of Congress who were working on legislation to end surprise billing.

Congress has yet to pass any legislation on the matter, but the debate is ongoing behind the scenes. Lawmakers included modest protections against being billed for COVID-19 testing in relief legislation but declined to go further.

Hoadley of Georgetown said HHS’ guidance should address some of the problems that Congress did not account for explicitly in its relief legislation, such as cases of patients being billed for testing for COVID-19 when the test results were negative.

“The providers, the insurers, everybody else is going to need clarification, as well as, of course, all of us as potential patients,” Hoadley said. “That’s going to affect our willingness to” seek testing or treatment, he said.

Frederick Isasi, executive director of Families USA, a nonprofit that advocates for health care consumers, said the group supports the administration’s guidance “wholeheartedly” but urged lawmakers to enshrine broad protections against surprise billing into law.

“It’s time to just ban them permanently, not just related to COVID,” Isasi said, adding: “Families should avail themselves of this as broadly as possible.” COPY HTML

Dealing with debt collectors during the pandemic

This Blog was published by: THE FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION….Consumer helpful

April 22, 2020 by Seena Gressin Attorney, Division of Consumer & Business Education, FTC

Job losses have traveled hand-in-hand with the Coronavirus. If you’re having trouble paying your bills, you’re not alone. Here are a few things to keep in mind if a debt collector calls.

Consider talking with the collector at least once, even if you can’t pay right away or don’t think you owe the money. That way, you can confirm whether it’s really your debt. If it is, you may be able to work out a payment plan or settlement.

Collectors have to follow rules when they contact you. Watch the short video at the end of this post to learn about these rules. During the Coronavirus emergency, the federal government and many state and local governments also have put special programs in place that may help you manage your debt:

  • The Department of Education (ED) has temporarily stopped the collection of federally-owned student loans that are in default. In fact, whether or not you’re in default, if you have federal student loans, you don’t need to pay your monthly payments from March 13 through September 30, 2020, and interest also has been suspended. Visit ED’s website to learn more.
  • Some states are limiting what collectors can do during this emergency. For example, you’ve probably heard about the $1,200 economic stimulus payments that most people will get as a direct deposit to their bank account. If a debt collector or a creditor has sued you, they may have a garnishment order that would let them seize the payment when it reaches your account. Some states, however, are temporarily making debt collection seizures like this illegal. Check with your state attorney general to find out about any emergency limits on debt collection actions in your state. (A new IRS “Get My Payment” tool lets you track the payment to your account.)
  • Many state and local governments have temporarily halted actions like evictions, foreclosures, and water and utility shutoffs. Contact your state and local government to find out about emergency protections that may apply to you.

If the collection calls get to be too much, you can stop them. Just send the collector a letter telling them to stop contacting you. Keep a copy for your records. Stopping the calls won’t cancel the debt. You still might be sued or have debt reported to a credit bureau. But, stopping the calls may give you time to regroup, then start working your way toward financial recovery.

New federal rules will let patients put medical records on smartphones

  • MAR 11, 2020

This article is a GAME CHANGER for the Healthcare Consumer.

Federal officials on Monday released groundbreaking rules that will let patients download their electronic health records and other health care data onto their smartphones.

“Patients should have control of their records, period. Now that’s becoming a reality,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “These rules are the start of a new chapter in how patients experience American health care.”

Officials said the rules likely will give patients a greater say in health care decisions and put an end to a long-standing practice in which some doctors and hospitals resist handing complete medical files over to patients upon demand. Many of the provisions are set to take effect in 2022.

“The days of patients being kept in the dark are over,” said Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma. “In today’s digital age, our health system’s data-sharing capacity shouldn’t be mired in the Stone Age.”

Yet the new rules also have raised concerns about privacy as technology companies, such as Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, open up new markets for providing medical records through mobile apps. Major EHR vendor Epic, for instance, has warned that freer flow of medical records could spur the unwanted sale of data or other unauthorized uses.

“Family members may be shocked to find that their most personal health data has been mined and sold by data brokers and is now known by others, Epic CEO Judy Faulkner wrote last June in opposing the rules.

Administration officials said they have taken privacy considerations into account and would require developers to attest to plans to protect the security and use of medical data.

Verma took a swipe at Epic in an interview with Kaiser Health News and Fortune.

“We’re not afraid to take on special interests to do what’s right for patients. Some people disagree because they want to keep the data,” she said. “The reality is that patient data belongs to patients. It doesn’t belong to EHR companies.”

Verma said the nation’s health care system remains “hugely expensive and inefficient as repeat tests drive up costs and, perhaps most importantly, doctors are forced to provide care with an incomplete clinical picture, especially at a time when the health care systems could be under stress.”

“With the handling of the COVID virus, the urgent need for coordinated integrated care could not be clearer,” she said.

Donald Rucker, who coordinates health information technology policy for HHS, said the new rule “will allow patients the ability to manage their health care the same way they manage their finances or the travel or other parts of their life on their smartphone.”

While Epic, the maker of the most-used electronic health records software, led a campaign to derail the rules, its chief competitor, Cerner Corp., argued the rules were long overdue.

“Consumers should have the right to access the health care information their providers have about them and dictate where they want it to go. Although existing laws allow patients to access their data, it doesn’t work,” Cerner CEO Brent Shafer said in a statement.

The rules also attempt to prevent EHR vendors from silencing critics of their software products. The government wants to encourage doctors and other users of EHR technology to share their experiences about software problems by prohibiting so-called gag clauses in sales contracts. That could free users to criticize EHR systems, including more open discussion of flaws, software glitches and other breakdowns.

Botched Operation,” an investigation published by Kaiser Health News and Fortune last year, found that the federal government has spent more than $36 billion on the EHR initiative. Thousands of reports of deaths, injuries and near misses linked to digital systems have piled up in databases over the past decade — while many patients have reported difficulties getting copies of their complete electronic files, the investigation found.

Consumers have long sought to be more in the loop on health care decisions in a user-friendly form. Many specifics about how that will happen, including how patients would make sense of complex pricing policies for purchasing health care and insurance and assessing quality, remain unclear, however.

To cut down on exorbitant “surprise” medical bills, Verma said, the CMS’ new rule would require insurers to let patients know which medical providers are in their networks. One study found that such bills — often not covered by insurance — have struck more than half of American adults.

For well over a decade, federal officials have struggled to set up a digital records network capable of sharing medical data and patient records. In 2004, President George W. Bush said he hoped to have a digital record for most Americans within five years. In early 2009, the Obama administration funneled some $36 billion in economic stimulus money to help doctors and hospitals buy the software needed to replace paper medical files.

Despite the slow progress, federal officials remain optimistic that digital records will save the nation billions of dollars while reducing medical errors, unnecessary medical testing and other waste — and encouraging more Americans to take a bigger role in managing their health care by comparing prices.

Trump administration officials on Monday sought to blame the Obama administration for creating what they called a “tower of Babylon,” in which doctors and health systems couldn’t seamlessly share patient information or “talk to one another.”

“It’s led to a tremendous amount of frustration on the part of medical professionals and patients as physicians, interacting with patients, oftentimes spend more time looking at computer screens than they do into the eyes of the people they’re trying to heal,” said White House official Joe Grogan.

New rules for digital charts

The Department of Health and Human Services on Monday issued two rules to give patients greater access to their electronic health records.

Among the key provisions:

  • Patients must be able to access their medical records on a smartphone at no cost and can share those records as they choose.
  • Health systems must be able to exchange information about patients’ past medical treatments or conditions.
  • “Information blocking” practices (that is, anti-competitive behaviors) by health care providers, developers of electronic medical records and others are prohibited.
  • Electronic medical record certification requirements are updated so that health professionals can discuss safety and usability concerns without being bound by gag clauses in software sales contracts.
  • Insurers are required to share health claim data with patients on Medicare and Medicaid through a mobile app.
  • Insurers must advise patients of their network of health providers through an app.

This article was first posted on Kaiser Health News. It also appeared on Fortune.

About the Authors

Fred Schulte is the John A. Hartford Senior Correspondent on the Kaiser Health News enterprise team.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Erika Fry is a senior writer at Fortune Magazine.

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