The Costliest Medical Conditions

Sun Life Financial studied the costliest medical conditions covered by its stop-loss insurance from 2012 to 2015. During the four years of the study, billed charges from medical care providers totaled $9 billion. Self-insured employers paid just over half ($5.3 billion) of those billed charges after discounts were applied and received $2.3 billion in reimbursements through stop-loss protection.

Million-dollar-plus claims increased 25% compared to the previous year. Less than 2% of million-dollar plus claimants (448) account for 18.5% of stop-loss claims reimbursements ($431.2 million). The average amount an employer paid on a claim above $1 million was $1.45 million, which was reduced to $491,000 after applying the average stop-loss claim reimbursement ($962,000).

Cancer dominates the top of the list (number one and number two) with $618 million in stop-loss reimbursements, accounting for 26.6% of stop-loss claims. Breast cancer accounted for 13.6% of cancer reimbursements. Cancer is also a leading million-dollar condition; it’s in the number-two spot after premature infant and live-born complications. The use of Intravenous medications was a key driver of rising cancer costs in 2015.

Chronic/end-stage renal disease (kidneys) held steady at number-three, accounting for over $369 million in combined first-dollar claims and stop-loss claims reimbursements. The average treatment cost for claims associated with kidney disease has gone down 21% over the last four years, the high incidence rate of the condition contributes to its ranking. One in three Americans is at risk for kidney disease, with diabetes and hypertension as leading causes.

Transplants were number-six with a 65% increase in incidence from 2012 to 2015. There has been an expanded use of transplants and an increase in organ donations and improved procedures, which can increase the pool of transplant candidates. Transplants represented over $62.2 million in stop-loss claims. There was a 79% increase in bone marrow/stem cell transplant costs and a 55% increase in associated pre- and post-transplant costs. The costs to treat a catastrophic condition were higher in certain regions of the United States: 27% higher in East South Central, 22% higher in the Mid-Atlantic, and 19% higher in the Pacific regions.

Expensive Drugs Are Becoming More Accessible Under Exchange Plans

ACA exchange plans are making some drugs more accessible to patients in 2016. Plans are less likely to place all drugs for conditions, such as HIV, cancer, and multiple sclerosis (MS) in a class on the highest cost-sharing tier, according to a report by Avalere. The study looked at Silver plans across 20 classes of medications. In five medication classes, some plans all drugs on the highest tier including drugs to treat HIV, cancer, and MS. However, fewer exchange plans are doing so in 2016 than in the prior two years.

As in prior years, the anti-angiogenics class, used to treat cancer, was most often subject to universal placement on the specialty tier. Half of all Silver plans placed all covered drugs in this class on the specialty tier in 2016. Nearly one-third of Silver plans place all covered MS drugs on the specialty tier as well, though this rate is down 14% from 2015. The sharpest decline is for molecular target inhibitors at 18%. For these three classes, 2016 reversed the sharp increase in this tiering structure.

Since the launch of exchanges in 2014, patient groups and policymakers have considered how formulary designs could affect patients’ ability to access medications. At the same time, plans strive to offer innovative benefit designs with low premiums. CMS has issued guidance discouraging plans from placing all drugs for a condition on the highest tier without regarding the cost of the medication. The federal government has not yet created a tool for regulators to evaluate benefit designs in this regard. California passed legislation preventing plans from placing all drugs for a condition on the highest formulary tier beginning in 2017

Groups Call on Congress to Pass Medicare Virtual Colonoscopy Coverage

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The National Medical Association and the American College of Radiology are calling on Congress to pass the CT Colonography Screening for Colorectal Cancer Act (H.R. 4632), which was. Introduced in the House by Reps. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) and Danny Davis (D-IL), H.R. 4632. It would provide Medicare coverage for seniors who choose to be screened with a virtual colonoscopy (CT colonography). This would remove a financial barrier to care widely covered by private insurance. The American Cancer Society recommends Virtual colonoscopy as a screening exam because it has been shown to increase screening rates. Less invasive than optical colonoscopy, it does not require sedation. After the procedure, patients may return to daily activities.

“Medicare coverage of virtual colonoscopy would increase African-American and other minority access to this test that can overcome many cultural stigmas and attract more people to be screened. This would prevent many cancers, find more cancers before they progress and save thousands of people who might otherwise die from a disease that is often preventable,” said Edith Peterson Mitchell, MD, President of the National Medical Association.

CIGNA, UnitedHealthcare, Anthem Blue Cross, Blue Shield, and other major insurers cover screening virtual colonoscopy. More than 20 states require insurers to cover these exams. Yet, Medicare does not cover beneficiaries for CT colonography. Virtual colonoscopy has been proven comparably accurate to colonoscopy in most people of screening — including those ages 65 and older. President Obama chose a virtual colonoscopy in his first checkup as Commander-in-Chief.

Study Looks At the Effectiveness of Health Policies

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The Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) released six policy briefs that look at how national and state policies affect health care costs and utilization. Researchers looked at commercial claims data for more than 50 million insured Americans. The following are Key findings:

  1. Provider consolidation drives up spending on cancer treatment: The consolidation of outpatient practices drove significant increases in cancer treatment spending. Hospital outpatient departments and their affiliated clinics were able to charge insurers additional facility fees. Consolidation also increased the use of more expensive medicines and other outpatient care components.
  2. Unrestricted access to physical therapy reduces opioid use and lowers costs: Seeing a physical therapist as the first point-of-care for lower back pain reduces potentially costly services later on, including emergency department visits and use of prescription opioids. Patients who sought physical therapy first for lower back pain had significantly lower costs, including out-of-pocket costs, for physician, outpatient, hospital, and pharmacy care compared to patients who saw another type of provider.
  1. Nurse practitioners push down the price of primary care: Prices for primary care services fell 1% to 4% in states that allowed nurse practitioners to treat patients without a supervising physician. However, spending on health care increased. Higher total health care costs may be a result of increased volume in services, which may stem from increased access to care.
  2. Designing insurance benefits to incentivize patients to choose low-priced providers for colonoscopies can lead to savings of 8.5% per procedure: Medical spending would decrease by approximately $95 million per year if just three health insurers-Aetna, Humana, and UnitedHealthcare, adopted a reference-based payment program for colonoscopies. These estimates were modeled on the health care savings of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS).
  3. Reimbursement for telehealth services is nearly 40% lower than non-telehealth care: Telehealth claims submitted by primary-care providers have increased from 1,246 claims in 2009 to 2,558 in 2013. But they continued to be reimbursed at lower rates. While many states permit reimbursements for telehealth services, only seven states have passed laws that mandate reimbursement parity between telehealth and non-telehealth care.
  4. Mental Health Parity law has a limited effect on access to mental health services: The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) has had little to no effect on access and use of mental health services for patients with depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia.

More Cost Transparency Needed for Cancer Drugs

Consumers don’t have enough information about cost-sharing for Cancer drugs in order to select the best plan in the insurance marketplaces, according to a study by the American Cancer Society. This updated analysis incorporates 2015 data from marketplaces in California, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington. Researchers found that coverage transparency has improved somewhat since 2014, but significant barriers remain for cancer patients. Researchers found the following:

  • Coverage of newer oral chemotherapy medications was limited in some states in 2015.
  • Coverage for intravenous medications, while noted more often than in 2014, was still unclear in most plans.
  • Cost-sharing structures presented in plan formularies did not match those presented on marketplace websites nearly half of the time.
  • Plans continue to place most or all oral chemotherapy medications on the highest cost-sharing tier, presenting transparency and cost barriers for patients.
  • Nearly half of plans placed a generic oral chemotherapy drug on the highest cost-sharing tier, which may constitute a discriminatory cost-sharing design.

The American Cancer Society recommends that the HHS increase transparency of coverage and cost-sharing, ensure adequate access to medically necessary drugs via an exceptions process, make cost-sharing more predictable and affordable for patients, and monitor the marketplace for evidence of discrimination against people with high-cost conditions, such as cancer.

Rules defining essential health benefits leave a great deal of flexibility for insurers in prescription drug coverage, leading to concerns that some plans may not provide adequate coverage for certain diseases. Increasingly, cancer drugs are targeted to specific molecules involved in the growth or spread of particular cancers, meaning that these drugs are not interchangeable, and most are not yet available in generic form.

Coverage Makes a Difference When It Comes to Surviving Cancer

Coverage Makes a Difference When It Comes to Surviving Cancer


Medi-Cal patients with breast, colon, and rectal cancer are more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage of disease and have lower five-year survival rates compared to those with other sources of health insurance, according to a survey by the UC Davis Health System. Medicare-Medi-Cal dual eligible patients are the least likely to get recommended treatment for breast and colon cancer.

VA patients have the longest intervals between diagnosis and treatment for breast, colon, rectal, lung, and prostate cancers, but their treatment outcomes compare favorably to patients with other types of health insurance, and they are generally more likely to get recommended treatment.

Researchers were not surprised that Medi-Cal and Medicare-Medi-Cal dual eligible, and uninsured patients were getting diagnosed at a later stage of cancer and had lower survival rates since adverse social factors affect these populations. But the lower quality of care cannot be as readily explained. In light of the rapid growth of Medi-Cal, the findings highlight the need to investigate the disparities in cancer care, according to the study

Judge Tells Aetna to Pay for Cancer Treatment

Judge Tells Aetna to Pay for Cancer Treatment
A Texas judge granted a restraining order preventing Aetna from denying cancer treatment to a man with advanced prostate cancer. Bobby Allen Bean’s doctors recommended proton radiation therapy. His doctors said that the only other options to treat the cancer are too risky because he has insulin-dependent Type 2 diabetes.

Aetna refused to cover the treatment, calling it experimental. However, the patient’s medical facility has been using proton radiation therapy for nearly 10 years. “This is not some unknown experimental treatment. It works. And my client should be given the opportunity to have the treatment to save his life,” said his attorney, Robert Hilliard of Hilliard Munoz Gonzales LLP

Have Insurers Found a New Way to Weed Out Members?

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Eliminating discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions is one of the central features of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But there is evidence that insurers are resorting to other tactics to dissuade high-cost patients from enrolling, according to a study by Harvard’s School of Public Health. The findings suggest that many insurers may be using benefit design to dissuade sicker people from choosing their plans. A recent analysis of insurance coverage for several other high-cost chronic conditions, such as mental illness, cancer, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis showed similar evidence of adverse tiering, with 52% of marketplace plans requiring at least 30% coinsurance for all covered drugs in at least one class. Thus, this phenomenon is apparently not limited to just a few plans or conditions.

A formal complaint submitted to the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) in May 2014 contends that Florida insurers offering plans through the new federal exchange had structured their drug formularies to discourage people with HIV from selecting their plans. These insurers categorized all HIV drugs, including generics, in the tier with the highest cost sharing.

Insurers have used tiered formularies to encourage enrollees to select generic or preferred brand-name drugs instead of higher-cost alternatives. But if plans place all HIV drugs in the highest cost-sharing tier, enrollees with HIV will incur high costs regardless of which drugs they take. This effect suggests that the goal of adverse tiering is not to influence enrollees’ drug utilization, but to deter certain people from enrolling in the first place.

Researchers analyzed adverse tiering in 12 states using the federal marketplace: six states with insurers mentioned in the HHS complaint (Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, South Carolina, and Utah) and the six most populous states without any of those insurers (Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia).

Researchers found adverse tiering in 12 of the 48 plans — seven of the 24 plans in the states with insurers listed in the HHS complaint and five of the 24 plans in the other six states. There were stark differences in out-of-pocket HIV drug costs between adverse-tiering plans and other plans. Adverse tiering plan enrollees had an average annual cost per drug of more than triple that of enrollees in regular tiering plans ($4,892 vs. $1,615), with a nearly $2,000 difference even for generic drugs. Fifty percent of adverse tiering plans had a drug-specific deductible, compared to only 19% of other plans.

Enrollees may select an adverse tiering plan for its lower premium, only to end up paying extremely high out-of-pocket drug costs. These costs may be difficult to anticipate, since calculating them would require knowledge of an insurer’s negotiated drug prices — information that is not publicly available for most plans.

Second, these tiering practices are likely to lead to adverse selection, with sicker people clustering in plans without adverse tiering. Over time, plans offering generous prescription-drug benefits may see a large influx of sick enrollees, which would reduce profits and lead to a race to the bottom in drug-plan design. The ACA’s risk-adjustment, reinsurance, and risk-corridor programs provide some financial protection to insurers whose enrollees are sicker than average. But the existence of adverse tiering in 2014 suggests that selection opportunities remain. Furthermore, the reinsurance and risk-corridor programs will be phased out after 2016, which will only increase insurers’ incentives to avoid sick enrollees.

Price transparency is one approach to address unexpectedly high out-of-pocket costs for people with chronic conditions. Insurers could be required to list on their formulary each drug’s estimated price to the enrollee, based on the negotiated price and the copayment or coinsurance. However, price transparency would probably accelerate the adverse-selection process if adopted in isolation.

One would be to establish protected conditions in drug formularies. Medicare Part D has designated several protected classes of drugs, including those used for HIV, seizures, and cancer. A similar approach in the exchanges could set an upper limit on cost sharing for medications for protected conditions. Such a policy would reduce financial exposure for people with these conditions even if they chose sub-optimal plans. Other safeguards for protected conditions could also be implemented, such as limits on prior-authorization requirements.

An important additional step would be to require marketplace plans to offer drug benefits that meet a given actuarial value, meaning that the percentage of drug costs paid by the plan (rather than the consumer) would have to exceed a particular threshold. This level could be set at the actuarial value for a given plan (i.e., 70% for silver plans) or above it. In order to significantly increase cost sharing for one drug, an insurer would have to reduce cost sharing for another drug. This step is crucial because it encompasses treatment of all health conditions, not just protected conditions and addresses non–formulary-based methods of passing costs on to consumers that may induce adverse selection (e.g., drug-specific deductibles), according to the report.

Stopping adverse drug tiering will not completely eliminate discrimination in the insurance marketplace. Some insurers will think of new ways to dissuade sick enrollees from joining their plans. Eliminating premium discrimination on the basis of health status was one of the ACA’s chief accomplishments in the non-group insurance market and one of the law’s most popular features. Preventing other forms of financial discrimination on the basis of health status — with the attendant risks of adverse selection in the marketplace — will require ongoing oversight, according to the report. The ACA has already made major inroads in designing a more equitable health care system for people with chronic conditions, but the struggle is far from over

Biosimilar Medications Could Save Billions

Over the next decade, the United States could save $44 billion by introducing competing biosimilar versions of complex biologic drugs, according to a report by the RAND Corporation. Biologics, which treat conditions, such as cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, are often effective, but expensive. Patient copays can be several thousand dollars a year. In 2011, eight of the 20 best selling drugs were biologics. Also, annual spending on the drugs has grown three times faster than spending for other prescription medications. Introducing biosimilar drugs into the U.S. marketplace is expected to increase competition and drive down prices, saving money for patients, health care payers, and taxpayers. However, savings are not expected to be as dramatic the as savings we have seen for an earlier generation of less-complex generic drugs.

The Affordable Care Act authorizes the FDA to develop a regulatory framework for approving biosimilar drugs. Draft materials released by the FDA suggest that not all biosimilars will be interchangeable with their original counterparts. In addition, nearly all biosimilars will require at least one head-to-head clinical trial to confirm similarity to the original biologic, which is a more-strenuous process than what is required for standard generics. A number of issues will determine the savings and who will benefit. One issue is how much the use of biologics grows as some patients switch to biosimilar drugs as they become more affordable. Patients will see some cost savings. But physicians and hospitals may also benefit because biologicals are often purchased by health providers and administered in clinics and other treatment settings. For more information, visit www.rand.org.

Exchanges Bring Narrow Networks and High Cost-Sharing for Cancer Patients

healthspendingMany exchange health plans have limited access to National Cancer Institute (NCI) designated cancer centers or transplant centers. They also impose high out-of-pocket costs for patients with silver and bronze level plans, according to a report commissioned by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).

The report, prepared by Milliman, provides an early look at the 2014 individual benefit designs, coverage benefits, and premiums for policies sold on four state health insurance exchanges in California, New York, Florida, and Texas.
The report reveals the following areas of concern:
• Narrow networks: Many specialty providers and hospitals that cancer patients rely upon are largely left out of the new health insurance exchange plans. Cancer patients could rack up thousands of dollars of medical expenses without reaching their out-of-pocket maximum since it is unlikely that any out-of-network expenses will count toward a patient’s out-of-pocket maximum. This it more important than ever to have adequate networks covering specialty care.
• High cost sharing: The lower tier bronze and silver plans require significant cost-sharing from patients. Qualified health plans come with high deductibles — sometimes nearly as high as the out-of-pocket ceiling.  The maximum out-of-pocket limits set for 2014 are $6,350 for an individual policy and $12,799 for a family policy. Some insurers offer plans with lower out-of-pocket limits in some states. However, the out-of-pocket limit does not apply to non-covered drugs or treatment centers.
 Challenges with transparency: Given the difficulty in navigating the health insurance system and the number of choices for consumers, providing thorough and accurate information is critical to ensuring consumers have the right kind of health insurance.

For more information, visit www.LLS.org

Last Updated 10/28/2020

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