Jeanette Contreras portrait

PBMs profit while consumers foot the bill. Policymakers must act

By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras

As consumers, when we go to the pharmacy for our medications, we expect a fair price. However, there’s growing evidence that pharmacy benefit managers — or PBMs — have been impeding the savings that should be going to consumers. Consumers deserve  to share in the cost savings, and we need policymakers to step in and help make that happen.

We previously wrote about our disappointment in how PBMs have evolved from once honest brokers to becoming profit driven and greedy, now taking savings away from consumers and patients.

One avenue PBMs use to pocket savings is through pharmaceutical rebates. PBMs negotiate with companies to lock in discounts for drugs in order to secure the drugs’ placement on a list (formulary). PBMs have notoriously leveraged formularies to give greatest access to the drugs that pay the PBMs the largest rebates, leaving less expensive drugs off-limits to consumers.

A recent Senate Finance Committee report found that rebates to PBMs have significantly increased since 2013 (some as high as 70 percent). But these discounts fail to lower the patients’ out-of-pocket costs for necessary treatments, such as insulin. For one product, the manufacturer offered the PBM a 56 percent rebate – which means more than half of the savings for insulin are going to a company that doesn’t even make the lifesaving medication.

Insulin is expensive. Forbes recently reported that newer versions cost patients between $175 and $300 a vial. The story points out diabetes patients need multiple vials, the cost of which add up quickly; the total annual value of rebates and discounts for PBMs is likely to be more than $5,000 per patient. As a result, consumers lose, paying more than many of them can afford for lifesaving drugs.

Another way PBMs profit is by avoiding competition, which would drive value and savings for consumers. Three main PBMs accounted for about 60 percent of all U.S. prescription claims in 2019. And when it comes to insulin, with so few industry players, it’s no surprise that consumers again find themselves on the losing end.

We’re pleased to see that some policymakers in the states are taking steps to address these issues. In New Jersey, the state is shaking things up by creating alternatives to how it contracts with PBMs — which is, in turn, increasing competition and benefitting consumers. New Jersey residents are saving  a bundle (to the tune of $2.5 billion over five years).

In New Hampshire, a recent study shows that the state can expect to save an estimated $17.8-$22.2 million annually thanks to legislation that will utilize a similar competitive PBM contract process.

While this is encouraging news, there is still more work to be done to bring to light the role of PBMs. Policymakers need to step in to ensure PBMs deliver savings to patients as they were originally intended to do. We’re encouraging state and federal action to review the role PBMs play in driving up costs and to address the many loopholes they use to increase profits.

Consumers — not PBMs — should come first at the pharmacy counter. Reach out to your elected officials. Share this story on social media to help raise awareness. And stay tuned as we continue the conversation.

Jeanette Contreras portrait

Expanded Medicaid coverage for postpartum care

By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras

The COVID-19 pandemic has enlightened us to how the social determinants of health adversely impact maternal outcomes in low-income, medically underserved communities. Year after year, the United States continues to have the highest maternal mortality ratio among wealthy countries. In efforts to address this disparity, the American Rescue Plan Act includes a provision that allows states to expand Medicaid coverage to women for up to one year after childbirth.

The dismal maternal and infant mortality rates are directly correlated with the health disparities that disproportionately afflict black, indigenous, and women of color. A 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that Black women were 3.3 times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications and Native American and Alaska Native women were 2.5 times more likely than white women to die within a year after childbirth.

Medicaid has traditionally been seen as a safety net for low-income pregnant women and children, providing health coverage that funds more than four in ten births in the U.S. each year. Under federal law, Medicaid must cover pregnant women with incomes up to 138 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) through 60 days postpartum. Each year, over 1.6 million women across the U.S. are effectively placed at risk for becoming uninsured when that 60-day coverage period ends.

Women who live in states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are eligible to continue their health coverage through Medicaid. Additionally, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which passed last year, provides states with a 6.2 percent increase to the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) rate to cover new enrollees eligible under the ACA Medicaid expansion as long as the Public Health Emergency is in place or at least throughout 2021. However, the women living in the 14 states that have yet to expand Medicaid would find themselves uninsured.

Under the American Rescue Plan, for the next five years, states have the option to extend Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) eligibility to pregnant individuals for 12 months postpartum. Though each state’s Medicaid program is different, the inclusion of this provision incentivizes states to extend health care to mothers during the most vulnerable time in their lives. This increased access to health care will pave the way towards improving health disparities for our most at-risk women and infants beyond the pandemic.

Jeanette Contreras portrait

Vaccine recommendations for those who recovered from COVID-19

By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras

As the United States prepares for the release of a third COVID-19 vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) meets to discuss further implementation considerations that will inform guidance for the vaccine rollout. At its March 1 meeting, ACIP dedicated a portion of the discussion to whether those who’ve recovered from the virus should still be vaccinated.

To date, there are more than 28 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and experts estimate that the true number of individuals infected, yet not clinically confirmed, to be triple that amount, pushing the total prevalence to approximately 100 million. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicates that those who’ve recovered will have a certain amount of natural immunity to the virus for up to eight months after infection, which is in line with the findings of a major British study published in early February, in which 88 percent of participants who previously tested positive for COVID-19 still had antibodies after six months.

Considering that the demand is greater than the supply, it is a difficult task to make recommendations for the equitable distribution of vaccines. For example, Spain issued recommendations that patients wait six months after diagnosis to get vaccinated if an individual is under age 55 with no major health complications. People over 55, or those with health risks that make them vulnerable to reinfection, are exempt from this delay and encouraged to be vaccinated.

Additionally, early studies are showing that immunity in individuals who had recovered and received one shot may be equal to or even exceed those not infected who had received two doses. According to the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a single dose of the Moderna or Pfizer mRNA vaccines would elicit an immune system response sufficient to provide comparable immunity to two doses in a non-infected person. On February 12, France became the first country to issue guidance recommending that people who have already recovered from COVID-19 only need to receive one dose of a vaccine, between 3 and 6 months after their infection.

Early research like this is informing public health policies in other countries. But the United States is known all over the world for its scientific rigor and reliance on randomized clinical trial data as a gold standard. In a recent blog, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins reassures us that, should other studies support these early results, the experts at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CDC will certainly consider whether one dose is enough.

The implementation of a one-dose vaccine would help to increase supply, however, the emergence of COVID-19 variants presents new challenges for curbing this pandemic. Current CDC guidance states that even if you’ve recovered from COVID-19, you should get vaccinated. Arming yourself with a vaccine will keep you and your family safe, and ultimately help to stave off new COVID-19 variants.

National Consumers League applauds Congress for surprise billing protections for consumers

For immediate release: December 22, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC – The National Consumers League welcomes the inclusion of long-needed surprise billing protections in the COVID Relief Omnibus Spending Bill.

Surprise billing happens when a patient’s insurance doesn’t cover a procedure provided by an out-of-network physician, something patients don’t know or realize when they get a procedure. An estimated one in five emergency visits and one in six inpatient admissions will trigger a surprise bill, which can run into the thousands of dollars.

Medical debt disproportionately drives people into bankruptcy. Bill collectors and hospitals often layer on fees, interest, and penalties, driving the original costs way up. A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 530,000 bankruptcies filed annually are because of debt accrued as a result of treatment for medical illness.

This statement is attributable to NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg:

“We greatly appreciate the bipartisan leadership of Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) in getting the surprise billing language over the finish line. We also thank House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR), Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) for their early leadership on this issue. This is a shining example of working across the aisle for the betterment of consumers.

Consumers can breathe a huge sigh of relief because under the bill—including the cost of an air ambulance—consumers will be ‘held harmless’ when exposed to out-of-network costs. Once this bill is law, consumers can expect that fees charged will be far more affordable and predictable at in-network rates. We are grateful to Congress for recognizing surprise billing as a predatory practice from which consumers need protection. The committee leadership not only helped to pass a bill but launched an investigation.

After two years of debate and discussion on how health care providers and health plans will negotiate these extra costs, it was agreed that patients should be taken out of the middle of dispute resolution processes. Now, we finally have a workable system for protecting 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

2021 rings in new health care protections for consumers

By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras

Surprise medical bills occur when patients unknowingly receive care from a provider who is not in their health insurance plan’s network. As the first COVID-19 vaccinations are administered, Congress has passed landmark legislation to ensure consumers needn’t worry about surprise medical bills from emergency medical services.

The passage of this legislation couldn’t come soon enough, as more than 476,000 Americans hospitalized with the coronavirus have already incurred exorbitant medical debt from COVID-19 treatment. Now, thankfully, 2020 will come to a close with renewed optimism in the American health care system.

This new law will also protect consumers from surprise billing from out-of-network ambulance and air ambulance trips, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. Most patients are conscientious consumers, careful to find a doctor that accepts their insurance before making an appointment. However, in the case of an emergency, a patient faces the possibility of receiving care from an out-of-network doctor in an out-of-network hospital.

As Congress debated legislative fixes to surprise billing, the Administration showed political will toward finding a solution with the issuance of Executive Order 13877, Improving Price and Quality Transparency in American Healthcare to Put Patients First, which includes principles on surprise billing. In a July 2020 report addressing surprise billing, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) further urged Congress to act, recognizing that 41 percent of insured adults nationwide were surprised by a medical bill in the past two years.

Following Executive Order 13877, HHS finalized a set of regulations to address price transparency for consumers. The first rule set to take effect on January 1, 2021, requires hospitals to publicly list standard charges for the items and services that they provide. The second rule, set to take effect in 2022, demands similar transparency from most health plans and issuers of health insurance coverage. These regulations offer consumers more control over their health care spending and better information as they shop and compare health coverage options for themselves and their families.

The new HHS regulations, coupled with the surprise billing legislation, amount to the greatest consumer protections in America’s health care system since the Affordable Care Act. Consumers with health insurance should not have to worry about surprise medical bills—especially during a pandemic. The health care system will be a little more consumer-friendly in 2021, which is good news for all of us.

What you should know about the Healthcare.gov Open Enrollment

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

From November 1, 2020 to December 15, 2020, consumers will be able to enroll in health coverage through the health insurance marketplace, Healthcare.gov. Choosing the right health plan involves thoughtful decision-making, with careful consideration of your needs and your budget. COVID-19 testing and treatment, telehealth, and mental health services have been vital pandemic necessities, and consumers are advised to pay attention to any changes in their current health plans to account for any adjustments in health needs.

It is estimated that annually consumers typically spend 17 minutes when selecting plan options during open enrollment, most simply sticking with their plans from the previous year. If you need assistance navigating the health insurance marketplace, you can consult a healthcare navigator to help in comparing the coverage options that make sense for you. Healthcare navigators provide free, unbiased advice and offer services in a number of languages. To find a navigator in your area, please click here.

Even with the election and looming challenge to the ACA coming before the Supreme Court, California v. Texas, consumers should know that the federal health insurance marketplace, also known as Obamacare, is still available. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on November 10, but the ultimate decision can come as late as June 2021. We’ve written more about the implications of California v. Texas here. Despite multiple attempts by opponents to repeal the ACA, over 20 million people have gained coverage through the marketplace in the past decade.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced that marketplace premiums have dropped by 2 percent nationally. Additionally, as a result of the pandemic, the marketplace has seen greater insurer participation – in turn, offering consumers with more robust options for coverage. Plans offered via Healthcare.gov are required to cover a set of essential health benefits mandated by the ACA, ensuring that you have access to comprehensive care – a provision that is of chief importance during this time. The ACA has afforded consumers with a host of health protections and prohibits insurance plans from discriminating against enrollees based on health status, including pre-existing conditions. To learn more about the marketplace, click here.

The National Consumers League encourages consumers to seek coverage via ACA compliant plans offered on the marketplace. If you miss the deadline to apply for coverage within the open enrollment period, you may be able to qualify for a Special Enrollment Period (SEP). Applying during a SEP is contingent upon meeting certain criteria, such as life events like having a child or losing health coverage. If you qualify for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), you can apply at any time. Most importantly, in order to have coverage that is effective by January 1, 2021, you must sign up by December 15, 2020.

CMS Proposed Rule Ignores Data & Bipartisan Support for the Value of Copay Assistance Programs

By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras

Americans love getting a discount. As consumers, we like to shop to save without compromising the quality of the products we buy. But in healthcare, the stakes are higher at the checkout counter. Patients not only want a discount, they depend on it to afford necessary, sometimes lifesaving, medication to treat their health condition.

Despite what we know about the value and impact of copay assistance programs, a new policy from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) could put a barrier between these critical programs and the patients who need them most.

Manufacturer copay assistance programs include discounts, coupon cards, and vouchers which many of our friends, family members, and neighbors use to afford their prescriptions. Studies have shown that without these financial support systems, many patients couldn’t afford their medicines.

The CMS proposal, which has yet to be finalized, would require manufacturers to guarantee that this assistance goes directly to patients—and if manufacturers do not, they would be required to include the value of the copay assistance in Medicaid Best Price and Average Manufacturer Price (AMP) calculations. That would be fine but there’s a  problem.

CMS has a separate policy that was already finalized earlier this year: the Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters (NBPP) Rule for 2021. In part, the NBPP allows health insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) to use policies that stop copay assistance from counting towards a patient’s out-of-pocket burden—sometimes called copay accumulator adjustment programs.

NCL criticized HHS for permitting health plans to use these so-called copay accumulator adjustment programs.

“Removing this cost-sharing assistance will force those patients to pay thousands of dollars more in unexpected costs at the pharmacy. These new costs could push some to forego those medications, leading to worsened health outcomes. This could compromise medication adherence and will lead to increased health care costs over time.” – NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg

Separate studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and IQVIA show that out-of-pocket costs can contribute substantially to reduced adherence or to patients not taking their medication altogether. This is counterproductive because if patients do not take their meds as directed, it means higher costs in other parts of the healthcare system stemming from increased hospitalizations, ER visits, and long-term health issues.

If the data doesn’t convince CMS, voters should. Weeks before the presidential election, we can clearly see widespread support for the value of copay assistance regardless of political affiliation. According to a new National Hemophilia Foundation national survey, more than 80 percent of registered voters believe the government should require copay assistance to be applied to patients’ out-of-pocket costs. Even lawmakers agree that CMS should stop this policy before it launches. A bipartisan group of 36 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to CMS urging the agency to not finalize the “contentious line extension section or the Medicaid best price change as currently defined in the notice of proposed rulemaking.”

Clearly, copay assistance is critical to Americans. We hope CMS reevaluates the potentially harmful consequences of this new rule on patients and pulls back this counterproductive proposal.

National Consumers League Expresses Concern Over Amy Coney Barrett Confirmation

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC – The next three weeks will be critical for the American people. Amid a global pandemic, a historic presidential election, and the attempt to fill an equally historic Supreme Court vacancy, there’s a lot at stake for health care. On October 26, the Senate will vote on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the US Supreme Court. On November 10, merely a week following the presidential election, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) hear arguments in the case of California v. Texas, the latest challenge to Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), more commonly called Obamacare.

The rush to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat on the Court on the eve of this election has worried health advocates and consumers alike, as a conservative majority court could potentially overturn the ACA. Conservatives have been hostile to the law, and Coney Barrett, herself an arch-conservative, seems to share that very hostility toward the ACA. This is illustrated by her disapproval of Justice John Roberts Jr.’s support of the ACA in a 2017 essay. In it, Coney Barrett wrote that Justice Roberts had “pushed the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute.”

In 2017, the strife between Democrats and conservatives worsened when the individual mandate provision of the ACA was found unconstitutional. Following that ruling, conservatives have tried to grasp at opportunities to repeal the entire law, including arguing for severability. Severability of the individual mandate provision, as explained by Justice Roberts, would allow the Court to excise the provision with “a scalpel rather than a bulldozer.” Severability would still maintain the ACA as the law of the land and would save access to healthcare for over 20 million Americans. But the plaintiffs, all Republican Attorneys General from across the country, have argued that the individual mandate cannot be severed and if it goes down, the whole law falls.

Although Coney Barrett was reticent during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, her record serves as a warning about how she will come down on a host of consumer health issues. These include reproductive decisions granting women agency over their bodies and the freedom to choose how they form families. Based on her prior endorsement of the anti-choice organization Right to Life and her public support of overturning Roe v Wade, there is cause for concern that medical interventions like contraception, abortion, and even in-vitro fertilization (IVF), could all be at risk following Judge Barrett’s appointment to the high court.

Aside from reproductive issues, there are countless health care protections on the chopping block pursuant to the ACA deliberation. Below are a few at risk if the ACA is overturned:

The stakes are high. If the ACA is overturned, COVID-19 could be considered to be a pre-existing condition. The pandemic has laid bare deep structural inequities; stripping away coverage during such dire times would be unconscionable.

There are a few ways the Supreme Court could rule on the case come November 10.

  • If Coney Barrett is not sworn in before the oral argument, the Court could vote on the case with an 8-member court, leading to a potential tie. If tied, the case would be returned to the original trial judge for further analysis – meaning that in the interim, the ACA would remain the law of the land, ensuring protections for millions.
  • The Court may still rule in favor of salvaging the ACA. Many scholars deem the plaintiffs’ arguments to be legally weak. This is where the argument of severability comes in.
  • Finally, if a new justice is appointed to the Court and there is a majority vote to overturn the ACA, it may be overturned. The ACA is an extraordinarily complex and comprehensive law, and this result would wreak havoc across virtually every area of health policy.

Over the next few weeks, the health and civil liberties of millions of Americans will hang in the balance. NCL does not support Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. Justice Ginsburg was a champion of rights and protections for consumers and women and a strong defender of the ACA. Confirming a justice for the Supreme Court with Coney Barrett’s record before the election has the potential to endanger lives already vulnerable during this pandemic. We simply cannot afford to throw consumers’ health care into such chaos and uncertainly during this COVID-19 pandemic.

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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.

Advocating for emergency air transport coverage

This spring, NCL sent a letter to the CEOs of Cigna, Aetna, and UnitedHealth Group, urging them to enter into productive negotiations with air medical service providers to ensure coverage of emergency air medical transportation. The ask came as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country, making air medical services even more essential, particularly in rural America.

“We are increasingly concerned about emergency air medical access during this crisis, and believe this life-saving care should be covered by every insurance plan,” said NCL Associate Director of Health Policy Nissa Shaffi.

“We are asking that insurers review the robustness of their coverage policies and immediately enter into network negotiations with air medical providers so that this critical service is covered, and patients are never left with a bill they cannot pay.”

Top of mind: HHS’s reversal of Obama-era transgender nondiscrimination healthcare protections

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

On June 12, the Trump Administration finalized a rule that proposed to revise, and in effect reverse, Obama-era protections offered in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section 1557, known as the Health Care Rights Law, prevents discrimination of patients based on “race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability.” In 2016, the Obama Administration expanded the definition of sex to encompass aspects of gender identity as well—extending protections to transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. 

The finalized rule will drastically impact how LGBTQ individuals navigate their health care and health insurance, with regard to nondiscrimination protections. The rule would essentially affect aspects of coverage related to access, cost-sharing, and health plan benefits, specifically, denial of treatment based on someone’s gender transition and/or a provider’s moral or religious beliefs.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a statement following this news expressing that reinstating the original definition of the protections offered would relieve the American people of approximately $2.9 billion in “unnecessary regulatory burdens”. These so-called burdens also include eliminating mandates for regulated entities to provide patients and customers with language accessibility pertaining to health care literature.

Considering the nexus of a global pandemic, civil unrest due to systemic racism, compounded by the epidemic of fatal violence against Black transgender people – the timing of this rule is not only inopportune but exceptionally cruel. The National Consumers League is appalled at the reversal of these protections during a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities. We urge health insurers and providers to do the right to protect patients by keeping politics out of professional medical judgment when providing services to their patients and customers.