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.

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.”

The National Consumers League supports expanded COBRA coverage

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

In a perfect world, every person in the United States would have quality health care coverage, irrespective of whether they were employed or whether their employer-offered health insurance. The National Consumers League (NCL) has long advocated for universal access to health insurance for every American.

For political reasons, however, we still have a hybrid, expensive, and patchwork health care system. Thankfully, the Affordable Care Act addresses some of these disparities for millions, but our health care system in the United States still leaves many gaps in who can get coverage. And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the gaps in our social safety net have been made very stark indeed. Estimates are that 27 million Americans who have lost their jobs have lost their health insurance as well, according to an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

An estimate from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found between 25 million and 43 million people could lose their employer-sponsored insurance in the coming months if job losses continue.

However, help is on the way.

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act passed the House of Representatives on May 15, 2020. The bill addresses the COVID-19-induced massive unemployment/loss of health insurance crisis for Americans who receive their health insurance through their employer.

The HEROES Act allows individuals eligible for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) coverage to maintain their employer-sponsored coverage after a layoff, reduction in hours or furlough without having to pay premiums through January 2021. The bill also would provide two special enrollment opportunities for individuals to obtain health insurance: (a) during the emergency period for Medicare-eligible individuals residing in an emergency area who have not previously enrolled in Medicare and (b) during an eight-week enrollment period for an Affordable Care Act exchange for individuals who are uninsured for whatever reason. The bill would authorize veterans without a disability or health insurance to qualify for special enrollment in the Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare system for a 12-month period. Finally, the bill would expand the Medicaid expansion pathway provided for in Families First, which covered 100 percent of testing costs. HEROES would expand this pathway to include full federal coverage for COVID-19 treatment and vaccines without cost-sharing for certain Medicaid enrollees.

There are issues, of course, with handing over billions of dollars to the health care industry through expanded COBRA that they might not have received otherwise. Among them, they pay excessive salaries to their CEOs that should trouble all of us who pay insurance premiums.

There is also the possibility that increasing access to private insurance via COBRA subsidies could stunt nationwide efforts to expand Medicaid for more vulnerable populations, to some degree.

But this is a case where we cannot let the pursuit of perfection be the enemy of the good. For nearly 40 million Americans struggling with loss of employment, passage of the HEROES Act will mean that they will not have to worry that neither they, nor their families, will lose health insurance.

We agree with Actors’ Equity, which issued this statement before the HEROES Act was adopted, “it is time for Congress to consider a 100% COBRA subsidy to ensure that no one loses their health care in the middle of a pandemic.” Similarly, our friends at Families USA have echoed the call for fully subsidizing COBRA coverage for displaced workers, among other robust consumer assistance measures. To read more, click here.  

Fully or heavily subsidizing COBRA coverage will have multiple benefits – particularly for consumers with chronic illnesses who have already satisfied their annual deductible- who would either be faced with potentially starting a new deductible from scratch, or with an entirely new provider altogether. By subsidizing COBRA coverage, families will be able to seek medical care, access vaccines and testing for COVID, and will have the full array of health care protections. It is a measure that will be good for the entire nation and will lessen the already frightening and painful loss of employment.

As a result, NCL strongly supports the HEROES Act provisions to subsidize COBRA benefits to the many millions who have lost employment. The House of Representatives has done its part. Now we need the Senate to approve the HEROES Act and move it to the President’s desk for signature. The nation will be far healthier if everyone can have access to health care in the age of this catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic.

NCL expresses concern about Trump Administration’s NBPP rule for 2021

May 26, 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 (NCL), the nation’s pioneering consumer advocacy organization, expresses concern about the Trump Administration’s Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters Rule for 2021.

The following statement is attributable to NCL’s Executive Director Sally Greenberg:

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll across the country, consumers should not be subjected to additional obstacles when trying to access the care they need. We are therefore deeply troubled by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) decision to permit health plans to use accumulator adjustment programs in its Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters Rule for 2021.

This is a step in the wrong direction at a time when consumers are struggling to make ends meet. Under these programs, health insurers are not required to count manufacturer cost-sharing assistance toward patients’ annual deductibles, even when no medically appropriate generic equivalent is available. Many patients typically rely on very specific treatments that have no generic or other alternative, resulting in already high out-of-pocket spending. 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.

Given the significant financial pressure this will place on patients and the negative impact it could have for our health care system as a whole, we ask that HHS reconsider the reversal of its original protections against these programs. Any subsequent course of action should seek to take the burden off of consumers. Employers and insurers must recognize that this is not the time to create barriers to care and refrain from implementing accumulator adjustment programs in 2021.”

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneering 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.

 

Top of mind: Full coverage should mean full coverage

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

The National Consumers League is troubled by the recent report by Public Citizen, “Insurers’ Offers of Free Care for Coronavirus Are Often Confusing and Limited.” In these traumatic and confusing times, it’s critical that consumers can rely on their healthcare insurers to follow the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law. This includes being crystal clear about what is covered, under what conditions, and for how long. 

Public Citizen’s research into 25 of the largest health insurers turned up a range of concerning practices. Most fee waivers will expire by early summer, well before the crisis will subside. Few appear to cover costs of out-of-network care, a hardship when the urgency of the illness and overwhelmed facilities may make it untenable to get in-network care. The 60 percent of people in private insurance plans who are covered by their employers’ self-insured plans may not even be covered if the employer does not opt-in. And of long concern to NCL, even free tests may come with associated services the patient may not be aware of, and that lead to surprise billing not prohibited by the law.

We urge insurers to act in good faith. Use the savings you are accruing from lower elective care costs to fully cover the costs associated with this pandemic. Remove arbitrary restrictions. Be clear and fully transparent about what you are offering. Hold the course for the duration. The consumer community is here to help make it happen.

Ten years later: ACA consistently proves to be America’s safety net, especially in times of crisis

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

Ten years ago, the United States Congress adopted the Affordable Care Act (ACA), after many decades of unsuccessful attempts at achieving universal health care by advocates. For the first time, the ACA provided coverage options for every American across the economic spectrum, expanding Medicaid in many states and offering the self-employed access to insurance on the open exchange. For NCL, the ACA is the safety net program the founders of the League sought to see put in place from the organization’s inception at the turn of the 20th Century.

Today with the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus across America, patients’ access to health care is more critical than ever. Yet despite the clear need we all have for health care coverage, over the past decade, the ACA has been under attack by conservatives in Congress and survived multiple attempts at repeal. The latest came from the Texas v. United States case – and now it threatens to render the entire ACA unconstitutional, following the repeal of the ACA’s  individual mandate provision. Why conservatives wish to deprive people of health care escapes us at the NCL. In fact, the ACA has transformed the way Americans interact with the healthcare system.

Throughout its short life, the ACA has cemented into law numerous consumer health protections and has expanded access to health coverage for over 20 million people. 37 states have expanded Medicaid, the health care program for low-income Americans. Prioritizing preventive care, the ACA mandated that health insurance providers  cover preventive services for all adults, women, and children – free of cost to the patient. The ACA also made it unlawful for insurers to deny or reduce benefits based on preexisting conditions. These include diagnostic included screenings, vaccines, birth control, and access to certain medications. For the first time, those 26 under could retain their health coverage through their parents’ insurance plans.

Research has shown that ACA Medicaid Expansion has improved access to care, financial security, health outcomes, economic mobility, and have reduced uncompensated care. Despite the progress made by the ACA, there are still 29 million uninsured people in the United States. If the ACA is repealed, 25 million Americans may lose their coverage overnight, without the promise of its replacement. Perhaps the COVID-19 outbreak will change the calculus and bring home how devasting it would be to repeal the ACA. Insurers would no longer be obligated to provide protections offered by the law, allowing plans to deny coverage indiscriminately, leaving millions of families along with low-income and high-risk individuals without care.

The true impact of the ACA will be even more apparent as the national continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming months. COVID-19 has upended the economy and affected virtually every industry and has caused unemployment to soar. On March 21, unemployment claims reached a record 3.3 million – the highest level of jobless claims in history (the Great Depression saw levels of 24 percent unemployment at its peak but there was no unemployment insurance safety net during the 1930s and thus no jobless claims, just breadlines). Economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute estimates that by summer, approximately “14 million workers will lose their jobs due to the coronavirus shock.”

A report by FAIR Health estimates that potential treatment for COVID-19, resulting in an average six-day hospital stay, could total to a whopping $73,300 for the uninsured: a devastating prospect in the middle of a global financial collapse. With the increased loss of employer-based health insurance, the ACA proves to be more crucial than ever as individuals and families may turn to the health insurance marketplace to secure coverage. NCL is backing legislation – and the health plans support this too – to move workers losing jobs and health insurance to the COBRA program with heavy subsidies so they can ride out the pandemic –  COVID-19 has exposed so many severe deficiencies in the healthcare system. To learn more about statewide efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, click here.

While the fate of the ACA remains uncertain, it is still the law of the land. If you are concerned about loss of coverage during this time, several state-run health plans have enacted Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs) in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, click here to learn more. NCL believes that healthcare is a right and that protections offered by the ACA make this country a far stronger, more robust nation. We will continue to work diligently to protect universal access affordable and reliable health coverage. To learn more about what’s at stake and how you can help prevent the potential repeal of the ACA, click here.