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Mercer

When employers are asked how they plan to control health benefit cost over the long term, they talk about improving employee health. This focus on employee health is one factor fueling growth in worksite clinics. Last year, Mercer’s National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans found that 29% of employers with 5,000 or more employees provided an onsite or near-site clinic offering primary care services, up from 24% in the prior year. Mercer followed up with these employers in a new, targeted survey on worksite clinics. Of the 134 respondents, 72% of those whose clinics provide general medical services said that managing employee health risk and chronic conditions is an important objective for the clinic.

 

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Here’s an employee advocating for her own health: Before a medical appointment, she checks her health insurance to make sure the visit is covered. During the visit, she takes notes. Before the doctor writes the prescription, she asks, “Are there any generics?”

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Moving from an employer-sponsored plan to a Medicare plan does not have to be complicated. Money magazine talked with Mercer’s Kristin Parker and came up with five tips for retirees. A few of them raise interesting considerations for those about to retire that could result in waiting for Medicare coverage to get treatment.

 

  1. There is no family plan in Medicare. So if you and your spouse have different medical and prescription drug needs, you can each enroll in the plan that is best for you.
  2. Cap on out-of-pocket costs isn’t automatic. Original Medicare pays 80% of covered expenses, with no cap on what you might have to pay. Medigap and Medicare Advantage policies have out-of-pocket safeguards. It is important to understand that component of the Medicare supplement policy.
  3. Be strategic in scheduling some procedures. Those about to retire should compare out-of-pocket costs for a needed procedure under employer coverage versus Medicare. You may fare better with Medicare’s hospitalization coverage, for example, than with your current commercial plan.
  4. Wellness features may be different. Medicare’s programs tend to offer more in-person care from health professionals, while commercial programs often depend on telephone advice services. 
  5. Research may help limit drug costs under Medicare. Most people can use a Medicare tool to compare the plans offered where they live to find the best fit for individual needs. Doing your Part D homework might provide better and cheaper coverage than through your employer plan.

 

Changing medical insurance upon retirement is a big deal to retirees. Employers who are looking to ease the transition for retirees can direct retirees to a resource to help them consider their options. Fifteen percent of employers contract with a retiree exchange to provide personalized support to Medicare eligible retirees. In addition, the States have established Senior Health Insurance Information Programs (SHIIP) to help seniors. Educational tips and personalized support can go a long way to helping a new retiree feel confident about their healthcare choices and decisions. 

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Early results from a Mercer survey made headlines this week with the news that employers are projecting that per-employee health benefit cost will rise by an average of 4% next year after they make planned changes. That’s in line with the moderate cost increases we’ve been seeing over the past few years. What was more eye-opening was finding that underlying cost growth -- the change in cost employers would see if they made no changes -- has slowed to just 5.5%. That’s a gap of just 1.5 percentage points -- the smallest we’ve seen yet.

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First, let’s put public exchange enrollment in perspective. It’s a relatively small piece of the pie, although you wouldn’t know it from the amount of attention it gets. In a Wall Street Journal article, Drew Altman reminds us “about 11 million people are enrolled in the marketplaces. More than 13 times that many, around 150 million, have coverage through employers, and there are 66 million people in Medicaid and 55 million in Medicare.  The marketplaces are an important part of Obamacare. However, more uninsured people have been covered by Medicaid expansions than in the marketplaces, even though 19 states have not expanded Medicaid. Millions of young adults have been covered on their parents’ employer plans.”  Another important point: 24 million Americans still do not have coverage, a number that would be smaller if all states had expanded Medicaid.

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Annual cost-sharing limits for nongrandfathered group health plans would increase to $7,350 for individuals and $14,700 for families in 2018, under a recent CMS proposal. This marks a 2.8% increase from the 2017 limits, which cap out-of-pocket costs for in-network covered essential health benefits under nongrandfathered group health plans at $7,150 for self-only coverage and $14,300 for broader coverage.

 

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Employers are grappling with the escalating cost of healthcare benefits. HR and finance leaders are adapting -- as are employees across the nation -- to a ‘new normal’ of narrow networks and high deductible plans. Basic coverage is increasingly augmented by voluntary benefits to meet the varied needs of employees and their families. During this ongoing transition, employees are being asked to more actively participate in the enrollment process.

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Open enrollment season is just around the corner, and HR professionals at companies of all sizes should be preparing to share benefit details with their employees as part of their 2017 enrollment process. Questions and some confusion are inevitable, but there are ways to make sure open enrollment goes smoothly:

 

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As discussed in an earlier post, the EpiPen controversy has put issues surrounding drug pricing very much in the public view. But while ensuring the affordability of life-saving pharmaceutical products deserves attention, it’s a complicated issue with many stakeholders. There is little government guidance for employers and their vendors on benefit design, such as which drugs to include on high-deductible health plan preventive drug lists so that they bypass the deductible. While adding the EpiPen might seem like an obvious step, there are many drugs that fall into the gray area between prevention and treatment, and for any individual employer to try to draw that line could put them at risk. More guidance from the government would help in the short-term, but ultimately the affordability problem will only be solved by addressing underlying drug prices.

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Every time a big company makes the leap to a private exchange, the industry pays close attention – especially Mercer’s own Sharon Cunninghis, North American Health & Benefits Leader. In this Human Resource Executive article, Sharon shares her thoughts on private exchange trends and opportunities, including best practices for employers who are making the switch. Her advice: “Help people understand the new benefits program, how it differs from what was in place previously, the added advantages of the new program and available support services,” she says. “Secondly, make sure that there’s a good, solid project plan from an implementation perspective – technology, new administrative processes and tools.” Sharon goes on to explain why, ultimately, health and benefits solutions of the future, Mercer Marketplace 365 in particular, will be seen as a “true healthcare destination” – a comprehensive platform that goes above and beyond today’s typical private exchange, serving as a resource not just at open enrollment, but throughout the year. With 6% of large employers either already using a private exchange or planning on it for 2017 – and an additional 27% considering adoption within 5 years – this is a trend to watch.

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Unless you’ve spent the last few weeks vacationing on an internet-free tropical island or remote mountain-top (if so, lucky you!), you’ve read something about the controversy surrounding the EpiPen, the severe-allergy drug injector sold by the pharmaceutical company Mylan. Since 2007, when Mylan acquired the EpiPen, the list price has risen from about $100 for a two-pack to about $600. There are virtually no alternatives on the market, and the medication is potentially life-saving – in other words, not optional. A grassroots social-media campaign, driven largely by parents of children with food allergies, pushed Mylan to offer a $300 “savings card” to commercially insured patients to reduce their out-of-pocket costs and to broaden the eligibility for uninsured patients to receive free EpiPens. What they didn’t do was reduce the list price for the drug, and the barrage of negative press continued, affecting Mylan’s stock price. The company responded by announcing they would introduce their own generic version of the product in a few weeks, at half the price. It will be the exact same product as brand-name version – which the company will continue to sell for the full price. Although drug companies have introduced generic versions alongside their own brand-name drugs to compete with other generics, it doesn’t appear that another generic epinephrine auto injector will be available in the short-term. 

 

Although this move may take heat off the company, the reason Mylan didn’t just reduce the price of the brand-name drug is because they hope and expect that sales of the brand-name version will continue – because (as this New York Times article suggests) some doctors will keep writing prescriptions for it by name, out of habit; because pharmacists will have a financial incentive to sell the more expensive, brand-name version; and because consumers with the $300 savings card might get the brand-name version for free but have a small co-payment for the generic version. On the other hand, some PBMs and carriers may have negotiated prices for the brand-name that are lower than the generic price! Employers will need to talk to their PBM or health plans to understand the current pricing structure and how, now that the target has moved and moved again, to get the best deal for their employees and their organization.

 

This story shines a spotlight on the urgent need for regulation to address pharmaceutical price-gouging and the extreme variation in prices paid by different purchasers for the same drug. On the defensive, Mylan’s CEO called out high-deductible plans as the real culprit; in fact, they exposed unfair price increases that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, as they do in so many cases. But the EpiPen story also highlights a problem with consumerism: you can’t be a smart shopper if there is no alternative to a product that your life, or your child’s life, may depend on.

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When employers are working on strategies to manage health benefit cost, behavioral health benefits aren’t often top of mind. After all, only about 4% of claims are related to treatment for behavioral health problems.  But what’s missing from that picture are claims for comorbid conditions – other health problems that go along with the mental illness or behavioral health issues.  According to one analysis, together these account for 22% of total medical spend. [1]

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This New York Times article offers an interesting “compare and contrast” analysis of public exchange plans versus employer-sponsored plans. Whether you’re satisfied with benefits on the public exchange really comes down to your perspective. If you were among the millions who were previously uninsured, you’re likely to be happy with your exchange coverage. If you came to the exchange after having had employer-sponsored coverage, the story is very different. A more limited choice of providers in the health plan network and higher out-of-pocket requirements are among the chief differences noticed by those coming off employer plans. In the end, a typical plan on the public exchange “looks more like Medicaid, only with a high deductible.” So while the public exchange is helping to fill a gap in the U.S. health care system, it’s not proving to be a source of comparable coverage for early retirees or those who would like to quit a corporate job to freelance or start a business. And each year, as these plans get skinnier, we’re seeing fewer employers that would even consider dropping the company plan to send employees to the public exchange.

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