Nancy Glick

It’s time to care about obesity care

Nancy GlickBy Nancy Glick, Director of Food and Nutrition Policy

Every year, the calendar is full of national health observances – special months, weeks and days that raise awareness of serious diseases and health issues. While all are valuable to advance the health of the Americans, Obesity Care Week taking place March 4-8 is especially significant.

Why?  Because even though the adult obesity rate now exceeds 42 percent – the highest level ever recorded – obesity is still viewed as a problem of lack of willpower, too many health professionals act in discriminatory ways based on people’s size, and those seeking obesity care often face exclusions in insurance plans or restrictive practices that delay or deny treatment.

The consequence is that that only 10 percent of people with obesity get help from medical professionals, meaning the disease remains largely undiagnosed and undertreated.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are a variety of safe and effective treatment options. And medical societies, including the American Medical Association (AMA), agree that obesity is a complex disease requiring ongoing quality care. The key is for society – including health professionals, insurers and policymakers – to care about obesity and agree that treatment matters. Here are the reasons why.

It is long past time for health professionals, employers, insurers, policymakers and the American public to care about obesity and work collectively to break down the barriers that prevent people from accessing proper care and treatment. This is the purpose of Obesity Care Week – to shine a light on a disease that no one has wanted to talk or think about and shift the way society views obesity and treats the disease.

Obesity Care Week is also an opportunity to call attention to the first Obesity Bill of Rights for the nation, developed by NCL and the National Council on Aging in consultation with leading obesity specialists and issued in January 2024. Starting with the recognition that obesity is a treatable disease, the Obesity Bill of Rights establishes eight essential rights so adults will receive the same level of attention and care as those with other chronic conditions and have access to all treatments deemed appropriate by their health providers. Now is the time to advance changes in federal, state, and employer policies that will ensure these rights are incorporated into medical practice.

More information about the Obesity Bill of Rights is available at: www.right2obesitycare.org.

Unveiling the flaws in the 340B Drug Pricing Program: Hospitals, medical debt, and consumer struggles

Sally Greenberg

By Sally Greenberg, Chief Executive Officer

In 1992, Congress created the 340B Drug Pricing Program to help ensure vulnerable patients would be able to access medications they need but may not be able to afford. This program provides steeply discounted drugs to health care providers – mostly hospitals – serving low-income patients with the intent that the providers would pass those discounts along to patients. Unfortunately, that is not what is happening. The National Consumers League (NCL) is increasingly concerned about this program, especially as it relates to hospitals’ abusive and aggressive debt collection practices, and how those practices lead to consumer medical debt. A recent letter from a bipartisan group of Senators underscores hospitals’ role in this growing problem.

We find it particularly troubling that many hospitals benefiting from 340B are not only nonprofit entities but are designated as charity hospitals – supposedly caring for low income and indigent patients. A 2022 report by the Alliance for Integrity and Reform of 340B found that charity care spending for nearly two-thirds of 340B hospitals was less than the national average for similar hospitals. Further, a December 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that “some nongovernmental hospitals that do not appear to meet the statutory requirements for program eligibility are participating in the 340B program and receiving discounted prices for drugs for which they may not be eligible.” One report found that 82% of nonprofit hospitals spent less on community programs than the value of their tax exemptions.

Consumers are not benefiting from the 340B program in the way Congress intended. A patient whose income is above 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) is expected to pay full price for a drug they receive at the hospital, even though the care center from which they are “buying” the drug did not pay full price for it. Hospitals participating in the 340B program saved an average of $11.8 million per year, according to a 2019 report from Beckers Hospital Review, and multiple studies have found that a majority of hospitals markup medicines between 200-500 percent. Under the current program, an individual who makes $29,200 per year has to pay that price.

What is even more alarming is the fact that if a patient can’t pay, the hospitals that have benefited enormously from discounted drugs intended for vulnerable patients are aggressively suing these same patients. This illustrates a major disconnect between the intent of the 340B program and the way it is operating today.

While estimates differ, medical debt is believed to cause more than 60 percent of bankruptcies in America. Most consumers facing medical debt did not end up in that situation because of bad decisions or profligate spending. Most have had some kind of injury or unexpected illness and don’t have insurance – or don’t have sufficient insurance – to cover their medical and hospital costs. Patients who need financial assistance should be processed when entering the hospital for medical care. Many are not given the chance to do so and as a result, can be sued for debt after services are rendered. Medical debt collection practices are debilitating for low-income consumers and can destroy their credit ratings, subjecting them to subprime rates and a never-ending spiral of debt.

Even if patients don’t start out poor, because of excessive fees, penalties, and other costs added onto what may or may not be actual medical debt on the part of patients, aggressive debt-collection practices can leave them destitute. Many don’t have funds to hire a lawyer, and if summoned, they often don’t know they need to actually go to court; in fact, sometimes debt collectors advise them not to show up in court. As a result, default judgments are filed against them, leading to garnishments of wages, and liens on homes, cars, and other properties. In 2019, the Journal of the American Medical Association studied the garnishment of wages by hospitals in the state of Virginia and found that 71% of the hospitals were nonprofit and the gross mean annual revenue of hospitals engaged in garnishments was $806 million, with 8,399 patients having wages garnished.

Below are just a few stories illustrating hospitals’ medical debt collection practices playing out in communities throughout the nation.

  • A woman in Knoxville, Tennessee, was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Even though she had health insurance, she was left with almost $10,000 in medical bills that she couldn’t pay. Financial counselors told her she couldn’t schedule cancer checkup appointments with her doctor until she has a plan to pay her bills, according to a December 2022 story by NPR.
  • As reported by the Washington Post in May 2019, an investigation by the Baltimore Sun found that 46 hospitals in Maryland filed more than 132,000 lawsuits for unpaid medical bills from 2003 to 2008 and won at least $100 million in judgments. In some cases, hospitals added annual interest at twice the rate permitted for other types of debts or placed liens against patients’ homes.
  • The Washington Post reported in 2019 that the University of Virginia (UVA) Health System sued former patients more than 36,000 times for over $106 million over a six-year period. During that time, UVA’s Medical Center earned a $554 million profit and held stocks and other investments worth $1 billion. One of the patients the UVA Health System sued was Heather Waldron. Following emergency surgery and other treatment in 2017 to address an intestinal malformation, Waldron received a bill from the University of Virginia Health System for $164,000, more than twice what a commercial insurer would have paid for the care. When she was unable to pay, the UVA Health System pursued her with a lawsuit and a lien on the home she shared with her then-husband and five children. In the fall of 2019, the family lost their home, and the “financial disaster” contributed to Waldron and her husband divorcing earlier that year.

We support the critical role hospitals play in communities across the country and understand many dutifully provide charity care to those who cannot pay. However, we believe that if hospitals are designated charity entities and are receiving 340B discounts, they should be required to prove that those discounts have been passed along to patients. The current situation is unacceptable and merits an in-depth investigation and tightening up of the 340B rules. Charity hospitals should not be able to both claim 340B status and drag the very populations they are pledged to serve into debt collection proceedings, taking their homes, their cars, and their possessions in the process. Changes need to be made to ensure that only eligible hospitals are allowed to participate in the 340B program and that the deep discounts for medicines are passed along to patients, as Congress intended.

The National Consumers League applauds the reintroduction of bipartisan legislation to give millions of Medicare beneficiaries access to safe and effective obesity treatments

July 21, 2023

Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org, 202-823-8442

Washington, D.C. – The National Consumers League (NCL) welcomes the reintroduction  of the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act (TROA) as a needed step to end outdated Medicare rules that leave millions of seniors with diagnosed obesity – particularly members of Black and Latino communities – vulnerable to disability, disease and premature death due to lack of access to the full range of treatment options.

Introduced by Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Representatives Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), Raul Ruiz (D-CA), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA) and Gwen Moore (D-WI), TROA will end this regulatory logjam by expanding coverage under Medicare Part D to new FDA-approved anti-obesity medications, which are currently excluded under a policy dating back to 2003. TROA will also end Medicare Part B restrictions on intensive behavioral therapy (IBT) that limit the delivery of IBT to primary care providers and restrict the physical locations where this care can occur. Through TROA, clinical psychologists, registered dietitians and nutrition professionals will be able to provide IBT if an individual with obesity is referred by a physician.

At a time when the obesity rate among adult Americans exceeds 40 percent and is even higher among communities of color – virtually half of African Americans (49.6 percent) and 44.8 percent of Hispanics are living with obesity – passage of TROA could be a critical step in changing the trajectory of a disease that for too long has been overlooked and undertreated. The National Consumers League applauds TROA’s reintroduction in the 118th Congress and pledges our support to gain passage of this important legislation on an expedited basis.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)
The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.

The National Consumers League applauds the FTC’s decision to investigate PBMs

June 14, 2022

Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC— NCL is deeply concerned by the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). The pervasive power of PBMs in the pharmaceutical industry has raised out-of-pocket costs for consumers and made it more difficult for them to receive essential medical treatment. NCL believes that the FTC’s investigation into PBMs represents a significant first step to addressing these issues.

The PBM system was originally intended to work on behalf of employers, health plans, labor unions, and states, to negotiate with drug manufacturers and process prescription drug claims. However, as their power and influence in the market has grown, there are major concerns that PBMs have increasingly prioritized profits, with consumers paying the price.

With the highest profit rates of any corporations in the prescription drug supply chain, PBMs have pocketed more than $450 billion in revenue in 2020, a stark $150 billion increase from eight years ago.  More concerning is that now, just three PBMs account for approximately 77 percent of all equivalent prescription claims.

PBMs often demand that drug companies provide them “rebates” or discounts to offer medicines as part of a drug benefit plan. While implemented to lower consumers’ out-of-pocket costs, these theoretical consumer savings seem to be nonexistent. In addition, to increase profits, PBMs intentionally steer consumers to higher-priced drugs, regardless of patient and treatment considerations.

As the most prominent PBMs have vertically integrated with the largest health insurance companies, they are employing monopolistic-like practices to increase prescription prices, limit consumer choice, and stifle market competition. NCL is encouraged that the FTC is taking preliminary action to hold PBMs accountable. In addition to this investigation, policy-makers and the FTC must continue to address the lack of regulatory oversight with the utmost urgency.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL) 

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

 

National Consumers League supports the HELP Copays Act to make prescription drugs more affordable for consumers

June 2, 2022

Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC— The National Consumers League (NCL) is pleased to support the HELP Copays Act (H.R. 5801), introduced by Representatives Donald McEachin (VA-04) and Rodney Davis (IL-13). NCL stands with other aligned stakeholder groups, as part of the All Copays Count Coalition (ACCC), to protect patients from increased out-of-pocket medical costs and ensure that essential and life-saving drugs are readily accessible for all consumers.

NCL’s support of the Help Copays Act follows our organization’s long history of ensuring access to health care and a fair marketplace for consumers in the United States. Across the nation, the cost of drugs vital to patients’ health and wellbeing are unaffordable for many families. This has made co-pay assistance including discounts, coupon cards, vouchers, donations, and more, a key tool for enabling people to pay for their prescriptions. However, recent policies, mainly copay accumulator adjustment programs instituted by health insurance and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), block these contributions from patients’ deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums, resulting in more costs for consumers.

The pandemic has only exacerbated consumers’ struggles to afford the medical treatment they need. A recent report by HIV and HEP Policy Institute, discusses how the average family cannot afford to cover the deductibles of their employer-sponsored health plans. The Help Copays Act will require these health insurance plans to count all forms of co-pay assistance towards patients’ out-of-pocket maximums, making essential drugs and treatments more affordable.

NCL supports H.R. 5801 as a solution to reducing the barriers that prevent our nation’s most vulnerable from receiving the medicines they need to maintain and improve health outcomes. According to a survey conducted by the National Hemophilia Foundation, 80 percent of voters support this bipartisan effort to ensure that copay assistance counts towards patients’ deductibles. NCL strongly urges policy-makers to fulfill their obligation to their constituents and support The Help Copays Act as this legislation is an important step in improving access to health care and establishing a fair marketplace for all consumers.

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About the National Consumers League (NCL) 

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

 

Jeanette Contreras portrait

How to protect consumers from PBM greed

By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras

The rising cost of health care is a sore point for all consumers and nowhere is it more glaring than at the pharmacy counter. However, consumers are largely unaware that Pharmacy Benefit Managers – or PBMs – are the middlemen working behind the scenes with very little competition and accountability. There are now just three PBMs that account for about 77% of all equivalent prescription claims. This lack of competition allows PBMs to easily manipulate the price and make it impossible for consumers to get a fair deal.

There is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the rising cost of prescription drugs. But PBMs ultimately control which medicines we get (and don’t get) and how much we pay out of pocket for them. That’s exactly why the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)– whose mission is to protect consumers and competition – has requested public comments on the ways these large, middlemen companies are affecting drug affordability and access.

I recently led a discussion with key experts to discuss this issue. NCL’s Executive Director Sally Greenberg, Former FTC Policy Director David Balto, and HIV + Hepatitis Policy Institute Executive Director Carl Schmid, shared their insights with us.

David Balto explained, “There are three things needed for a market to really function effectively – you need to have choice (competition); second, transparency – that is you know what you’re getting and what the benefit of the bargain is; and third, that there’s no conflict of interest. In the PBM market, PBMs fail on all three grounds.”

PBMs initially came into existence to streamline how consumers get their medicines and were intended to lower costs. However, as Sally Greenberg pointed out, “The fact that PBMs have the influence and decision-making authority they do should be concerning for all consumers. PBMs have the power to negotiate discounts with drug manufacturers, they work with insurance companies to determine which drugs will ultimately be covered, and they work with pharmacists to reimburse them for dispensing drugs. All along the way, they’ve found ways to profit – and all along the way this impedes the savings that should be going to consumers.”

Carl Schmid shared more about how this impacts patients, “We’re now seeing the creation of specialty drugs or specialty tier (on formularies). This is a term created totally by the PBMs…now it’s just any new drug – all HIV drugs, all Hepatitis drugs, all cancer drugs – they’re all specialty drugs these days and they put them in the highest tier. And this not only creates higher out-of-pocket costs for patients, but it’s also discriminatory.”

These unfair PBM practices lead to unnecessarily high out-of-pocket costs for prescriptions while PBMs continue to find ways to game the system to their benefit. The FTC wants to hear from consumers and patients who have been negatively impacted by these PBM practices.

Watch the full discussion here to learn more about the PBM problem. Then share your story with the FTC here.

NCL Briefing: measuring the 340B program’s impact on charitable care and operating profits for covered entities

Join the National Consumers League for a panel discussion with experts from Health Capital Group, the Community Oncology Alliance, and Johns Hopkins on this new white paper, which analyzes 340B’s impact on hospital profit margins and charitable care spending and attempts to quantify the amount of program benefits accruing to covered entities, contract pharmacies and patients.

Why we need more Black health professionals in the workforce

By NCL Health Policy Associate Milena Berhane

A lack of diversity in the health care workforce has been a persistent issue in the United States, posing significant implications to health equity, particularly for the Black or African American community.

An estimated five percent of physicians identify as Black, despite making up 13 percent of the U.S. population. A recent study utilizing U.S. Census Bureau information found that the proportion of Black physicians in the United States has only increased by four percent in more than a century — from 1900-2018. This study also reported that the percent of Black male physicians has remained relatively stagnant since 1940. Diversity issues also exist in other health care professions, with an estimated 7.8 percent of nurses, 3.8 percent of dentists, and 2.5 percent of physical therapists being Black.

The education, testing, application, and interviewing process required to pursue a career in health care is rigorous and costly. In addition to a four-year degree, candidates are also required to take standardized exams, pay expensive application fees, and pay for travel to interview. Most medical students expect to spend up to $10,000 for the application process. Once accepted to a health professional program, the tremendous monetary and time costs of schooling are immense obstacles for many. Medical school attendees accumulate an average $200,000 of student loans by the time they are finished with their programs.

Due to generations of systemic racism in our country, Black Americans are less resourced — financially and in terms of social capital — than their white counterparts. The rigorous process of applying to and remaining in health professional programs creates a pipeline that excludes disadvantaged students from the ability to pursue careers in clinical care.

The barriers to enter the workforce have further negative impact on communities and health equity. Black patients face a variety of issues that can influence their ability to access medical care, including medical mistrust caused by historical unethical medical mistreatment faced by Black Americans, dismissal of health concerns that Black patients express to health care providers, and others. Time and time again, Black patients have shared their experiences of medical providers ignoring their health concerns, and therefore being undertreated and going undiagnosed for their conditions. In addition, research indicates that Black patients report poorer patient-provider communication and shared decision-making. These issues lead to Black patients receiving lower quality care from medical providers, further worsening health conditions that could be treated.

Racial bias and a lack of culturally competent medical care in the healthcare system has led to poorer health outcomes for Black patients. Black Americans of all ages already face higher rates of hypertension, asthma, diabetes, and other health issues due to systemic racism and how it has affected the environments they live in, the food they have access to, their education prospects, income, etc. These inequities compiled with a culturally incompetent and bias medical system leaves Black Americans with little ability to receive proper medical treatment and improve their health and well-being. Although medical schools are attempting to teach the importance of culturally competent care, it is crucial that Black patients are also able to access healthcare providers that look like them and come from their communities.

Clearly, the current make up of racial diversity of the health care workforce has failed to keep up with the demographic shifts in the United States. Although public health efforts are important in addressing and improving health equity, inequities within the medical system must be addressed simultaneously. The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted and exacerbated health inequities. Increasing the amount of Black health professionals across the United States is a critical step in ensuring better health outcomes for Black patients and their overall well-being.

Illicit drugs and the digital marketplace

By NCL Health Policy Associate Milena Berhane

Technology has brought into the homes of millions of consumers many wonderful tools for accessing the drugs and medical products we need. We, as consumers — at the touch of a few buttons — have access to drugs and devices that would have required far more time and effort to acquire in the past. But with that ease of access, we also have millions of tainted or suspect products peddled to consumers, including counterfeit drugs.

At any one time, there are 35,000 active pharmacies online, according to ASOP Global. Ninety-five percent of them do not comply with applicable laws and pharmacy standards. Counterfeit products sold by this 95 percent are manufactured in often unsafe conditions and contain little or no active ingredients.

Those in charge of online registries could better control this. These registries control the websites that can be set up on the Internet, managing domain name extensions such as .com, .gov, and .org, and .pharmacy. It is critical that Internet registries and registrars monitor the activity on their domains and ensure that illegal activity is prevented.

Consumers look for drugs online for both cost and convenience reasons. It’s understandable that consumers are turning to the Internet for cheaper options when the cost of many prescription drug costs is so high. Those who do undoubtedly don’t understand the risk of illegal online pharmacies; research shows only an estimated 37 percent see little danger in ordering from such a pharmacy. In addition, 7 in 10 Americans incorrectly believe that appearing at or near the top of Internet search results legitimizes such a website.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a role in these risks, with an increased sale of online goods, including prescription drugs. About 31 percent of consumers who bought prescription medication online did so for the first time in 2020 because of the pandemic. As a result, now more than ever, we need to ensure that illegitimate online pharmacies are far better regulated, and frankly, put out of business.

The examples are stark. In 2021, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills, which is more than what was seized in 2020 and 2019 combined. Due to these high numbers, in late 2021, the DEA warned that “fake prescription pills are widely accessible and often sold on social media and e-commerce platforms — making them available to anyone with a smartphone, including minors.”

We believe that online platforms have the responsibility to enforce their terms and conditions. These registries and registrars are choosing profit over safety by allowing online pharmacies to sell fake drugs and products.

For this reason, the National Consumers League is supporting the DRUGS Act (H.R. 6352/S.3399) which aims to holds Internet registries and registrars responsible for any illegal and illegitimate drugs being sold through their online platforms. Modeled after a pilot “trusted notifier” program, this bill would require registries to suspend a website, conduct an investigation, and then shut the platform down if it is found to be selling illegal substances.

In the meantime, NCL will continue to educate consumers about the dangers of counterfeit drugs. NCL’s FakeRx Action Center provides consumers with the tools to protect themselves from fake drugs and illegal online pharmacies — as well as a place to report counterfeits. Consumers have a duty to do their homework, but we have to make it far harder for fakes and counterfeits to be peddled to unwitting consumers. The DRUGS Act will go a long way to make that a reality.

Jeanette Contreras portrait

Reason to celebrate: No more surprise medical bills in the new year!

By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras

Consumers have grown to expect surprise medical bills as a given in the fragmented U.S. healthcare system. Even people with large employer-sponsored health insurance coverage could expect to receive a surprise bill for an out-of-network medical service. A 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlined how more than half of U.S. consumers reported recently receiving an unexpected medical bill — many related to essential services like childbirth, elective surgeries, or emergency services. Thanks to the No Surprises Act, signed into law as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, surprise medical bills will be a thing of the past.

Beginning January 1, 2022, federal protections ban surprise medical bills any time a person receives emergency care, including some non-emergency services. For example, the new law bans out-of-network charges for out-of-network providers who work at an in-network facility. It also requires that cost-sharing for emergency services, like co-pays and co-insurance, be based on in-network rates.

Healthcare providers and facilities will be required to give patients easy-to-understand notice regarding out-of-network care, explaining that it could be more expensive. Providers will also need to tell patients whom to contact if they think the provider or facility has violated the surprise billing protections. Patients will be able to dispute a claim if they receive a medical bill that is higher than the estimated cost given in advance of care.

Whether or not a patient has insurance, they can submit a complaint about a medical billing issue if they have a question or are concerned that their provider may not be following the new rules. For more help, consumers can go to the CMS.gov webpage to submit a claim online or call the No Surprises Help Desk at 1-800-985-3059, 8am-8pm ET seven days a week; (TTY: 800-985-3059).