Don’t forget to take advantage of Healthcare.gov Special Enrollment Period

By Special Guest Kelley Schultz, Executive Director, Commercial Policy, America’s Health Insurance Plans and NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras

More than 2 million Americans nationwide—1.5 million in healthcare.gov states, and an additional 600,000 individuals in states that run their own exchanges—have signed up for coverage during the 2021 Marketplace Special Enrollment Period that extends through August 15. Earlier this year, President Biden launched a new special enrollment period for the 36 states using healthcare.gov—and states that run their own marketplaces followed suit—to help people get health coverage and peace of mind.

Millions of Americans still have the opportunity to enroll in new health insurance plans through the healthcare.gov marketplace, whether they’re uninsured or currently enrolled and wish to switch plans.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 temporarily increased the availability and generosity of the Affordable Care Act’s premium subsidies. As a result, 3.7 million Americans are eligible for expanded financial assistance to make premiums more affordable, including people who didn’t qualify for financial assistance before.

This Special Enrollment Period is a crucial opportunity as the country comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial hardship experienced by many—a quarter of U.S. adults say they or someone in their household has been laid off, with even more seeing reduced pay. The expanded opportunity for people to enroll in marketplace health plans with enhanced affordability is a major development that will provide much needed assistance to Americans who have faced economic stresses over the past year.

The deadline to enroll in coverage during the healthcare.gov Special Enrollment Period is August 15. States that run their own exchanges may have different deadlines, so consumers should check when their state’s special enrollment period ends. Additionally, current enrollees should return to healthcare.gov to check to access enhanced subsidies to lower their monthly premium and see if they can get additional savings by switching to a high-value plan with lower cost sharing.

The relief bill extended subsidies to 3.7 million people to help lower their monthly premiums and out-of-pocket costs, including people with incomes over 400% of the Federal Poverty Level ($51,040 for an individual or $104,800 for a family of four). Anyone with incomes below 150% of the federal poverty level ($19,140 for an individual or $39,300 for a family of four) is eligible for a high-value plan with a $0 premium and a very low deductible.

These increased subsidies make quality health insurance coverage more affordable for millions of Americans who are encouraged to visit healthcare.gov or their state exchange to see how they can sign up. Health coverage will start on the first day of the month after you select a plan, so it is important that enrollees consider this timeline while making their decisions.

Some SEP resources:

  • For help selecting a plan in any number of languages, you can access a navigator in your area here.
  • More information about the health insurance marketplace and the Special Enrollment Period can be found here.
  • Use a decision tree tool to see if you are eligible for the special enrollment period and get other fast facts here.

NCL commends HHS interim final rule regarding surprise billing protections

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org(412) 945-3242

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL) welcomes the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announcement of an interim final rule regarding surprise billing protections, to take effect on January 1, 2022. This rule is a major element of the implementation of the No Surprises Act, which was passed in December as part of the omnibus spending bill. It will eliminate surprise medical bills which have devastated American consumers for far too long.

Patients can be vulnerable to surprise medical bills when they unknowingly receive out-of-network care. This often happens in emergencies, where a patient does not have the luxury to choose an in-network provider, or when an out-of-network doctor such as an anesthesiologist provides ancillary care at an in-network facility. These charges can lead to sky-high bills for patients, often while they are dealing with unforeseen circumstances. Patients frequently forgo necessary care in fear of receiving surprise bills that could possibly subject them to medical debt. Surprise medical bills negatively impact patients, employers and taxpayers, leading to $40 billion in premium increases every year because certain providers can leverage their ability to leave the network for higher reimbursement rates.

Thankfully, the No Surprises Act and the new rule announced by HHS put a stop to most of these surprise billing practices, promising a major victory for consumers. The new rule:

  • Prohibits out-of-network cost-sharing for emergency care that is higher than in-network rates
  • Prohibits out-of-network charges for ancillary care provided at an in-network facility
  • Prohibits surprise billing for out-of-network air ambulance services
  • Requires advance notice and patient authorization for non-emergency care performed out-of-network

Under these new protections, consumers will be “held harmless,” and will gain relief from unscrupulous surprise charges. The requirements for transparency in billing and advance notice for out-of-network care will allow consumers to play a greater role in their own healthcare and ensure that they are safeguarded from unexpected costs while seeking care.

NCL applauds members of Congress and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra for their bipartisan leadership in passing these protections into law and implementing the new rule. The No Surprises Act had been in legislative limbo for years, with no definitive agreement in place for its passage. The work of Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Patty Murray (D-WA) and former Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), alongside Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and former Representative Greg Walden (R-OR) to at last secure the passage of the No Surprises Act is applauded. Their efforts will result in desperately needed protections for American consumers and fix one of the many flaws in America’s healthcare system.

As stated by Secretary Becerra, “Health insurance should offer patients peace of mind that they won’t be saddled with unexpected costs. The Biden-Harris Administration remains committed to ensuring transparency and affordable care, and with this rule, Americans will get the assurance of no surprises.” This rule will protect consumers and lead to a better functioning healthcare system. We hope that Secretary Becerra will continue to build on the positives of the new interim rule as HHS develops the final rule to implement the No Surprises Act and give healthcare consumers the protections that they deserve.

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About the National Consumers League

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.

NCL supports the Protecting Seniors through Immunizations Act of 2021

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) is delighted to support the Protecting Seniors through Immunizations Act of 2021 (H.R. 1978/S. 912), introduced by Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tim Scott (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), and Representatives Ann Kuster (D-NH) and Larry Bucshon (R-IN). The bill would expand access to immunizations for seniors by eliminating cost sharing for vaccines covered under Medicare Part D.

The legislation would eliminate out-of-pocket costs for all vaccines recommended by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and covered under Medicare Part D. This would apply to crucial immunizations such as the Shingles and tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, or Tdap, vaccines, along with future vaccinations. Currently all CDC recommended vaccines are covered with no out-of-pocket costs under private insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare Part B. Unfortunately, Medicare beneficiaries must often pay out-of-pocket costs of up to $160 for vaccines covered under Part D.

“As healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, policymakers should support legislation that eliminates financial barriers for Medicare beneficiaries to get their CDC recommended vaccines,” said NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras. “Research shows that higher cost-sharing means fewer seniors will elect to receive their vaccines. By eliminating out-of-pocket costs for immunizations, older Americans will be better protected from vaccine preventable illnesses.”

More than 50,000 American adults die from vaccine-preventable diseases every year. Among other provisions, this bill would increase education about vaccines for Medicare beneficiaries and would authorize a study to find ways to boost adult vaccination rates. These steps are important at a time when misinformation regarding vaccine safety is spreading rampantly throughout society. Improving access to and utilization of vaccinations will enhance overall health outcomes and help to address existing racial and socioeconomic health disparities.

“Vaccines are amongst the most effective public health measures at our disposal. Routine immunizations can prevent diseases that have the potential to cause severe disease and wreak havoc on our most vulnerable communities,” said Contreras. “We urge Congress to pass the Protecting Seniors Through Immunization Act, to ensure greater equity in access to vaccines, in turn protecting the most vulnerable members in society from unnecessary and easily preventable illness and death.”

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About the National Consumers League

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

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 calls on Administration to swiftly address PBMs’ role in diving up drug costs

For immediate release: February 3, 2021

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

Washington, DC—Washington, DC – The National Consumers League encourages the Biden Administration to continue work on meaningful reforms that help drive down consumer out-of-pocket costs of medicines. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Monday announced the decision to delay a final rule on pharmaceutical rebates that would address critical issues in our healthcare system. The rule aims to lower out-of-pocket costs for consumers by eliminating anti-kickback safe harbors for drug rebates and offering them as direct-to-consumer discounts.

As HHS has demonstrated, the rebates, discounts, and fees negotiated between pharmaceutical companies and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) are rarely used to lower consumer out-of-pocket costs for medications. According to the new Senate Finance Committee report, some PBMs receive as much as 70 percent of insulin’s list price—demonstrating that PBMs can increase their profits when list prices are higher. By passing PBM rebates along to patients, savings at the pharmacy counter could be significant.

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

This delay is a major and preventable setback for consumers. We could be one step closer to significantly lowering out-of-pocket costs, but the government has delayed action. As we continue to face a global pandemic and economic challenges, it’s absolutely essential that we put the interests of consumers above all else—including PBMs.

“We must fix our broken drug pricing process, and HHS has identified one major flaw. The discounts these manufacturers offer to PBMs aren’t passed along to consumers as they should be. And PBMs continue to increase their fees, driving costs up even further. This rule would ensure that consumers—not large, corporate PBMs—save money on the medications they need.

Consumers deserve better, and NCL is committed to encouraging meaningful PBM reforms as soon as possible.

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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 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.