Many Americans and employers agree that a top priority for President Trump and Congress should be lowering prescription drug costs. That was underscored this week with introduction of bipartisan legislation – the Fair Drug Pricing Act – a step in the direction of greater price transparency. The bill would require drug makers to justify their pricing and itemize their expenses before raising prices more than 10% in one year, or 25% over three years, on drugs that cost at least $100. (Remember the EpiPen controversy from last year?) Shortly after receipt of this pricing information, HHS would be required to make the data publicly available. In addition to providing a check on sharp price hikes, this could help PBMs and other drug purchasers make more informed decisions.
The Fair Drug Pricing Act mimics bills that have been introduced in more than a dozen state legislatures, and a growing number of state and federal lawmakers have offered a variety of proposals to address the issue. Congressional Democrats, for example, have proposed to allow Medicare to negotiate prices, remove tax breaks drug makers receive for advertising expenses, speed generic drugs to market, and allow Americans to import medicines from Canada, among other things.
The pharmaceutical industry opposes and will fight most of the proposals, but it’s clear that the industry and policymakers are feeling the heat over drug prices.
Earlier this week we learned that the CBO will release their “score” of the AHCA the week of May 22. This revised projection will reflect the most recent changes to the bill – allowing states to opt-out of certain provisions including essential health benefits, aspects of community rating and changes to age banding ratios as well as $8 billion in funding to help states that choose to waive the ACA's community rating for individuals who don't have continuous coverage.
This CBO score will play a key role in how the bill moves through the Senate. The Senate Parliamentarian determines which provisions of the bill qualify for repeal under the budget reconciliation process, and she cannot begin that review without the CBO analysis. If she decides that certain parts of the AHCA bill can’t be part of the reconciliation bill, that would affect the CBO score, especially the estimated savings that impact the amount of deficit reduction. This deficit reduction estimate – $150 billion for an earlier version of the bill – will constrain how the Senate crafts their bill. The reconciliation rules require the Senate bill to achieve the same level of savings as the House bill.
As this article from The Washington Post points out, if Senate Republicans want to reinstate some of the Medicaid spending cut by the House, they’ll need to find revenue to pay for it, meaning they may have to reconsider when and which of the ACA’s long list of taxes can be repealed – the AHCA would delay the Cadillac tax until 2026 but would repeal most of the ACA's other taxes starting in 2017. This budget constraint rule also almost guarantees an uphill battle for the Senate to repeal the Cadillac Tax. Not only would Cadillac tax repeal raise a budget “point of order” requiring 60 votes to waive, it would come with some costs which they might not be able to offset if the Senate wishes to walk back some of the savings generated from changes the AHCA would make to Medicaid and the individual market. If the new CBO score continues to project a large increase in the number of uninsured – 24 million more uninsured by 2026 in the last report – the Senate will be under pressure to keep ACA changes to Medicaid and the individual market or simply make smaller fixes to these provisions. All eyes will be on the CBO score that comes out the week of May 22 as the starting point for the Senate debate.
Check out this article for tips on managing out-of-pocket expenses in a high-deductible health plan. Typically, your paycheck deductions are lower, which is a bonus, but how do you keep from falling behind financially when you need care? Here are the author’s suggestions, plus a few from me.
- Take advantage of preventive services covered at 100%. For example, get a flu shot so you are less likely to get sick.
- Use in-network providers for the lowest possible out-of-pocket expense.
- Consult with a nurse for free by calling the nurse-line for a consultation before scheduling an appointment with a physician; it could save you the cost of an office visit
- Many plans include a telemedicine benefit. The cost of a telemedicine visit is usually around $40-$50, and can be scheduled at your convenience via phone or video chat.
- Investigate "convenience care” clinics in your area. Located in stores like Target, CVS, and Walgreens, they offer a limited number of services at a lower cost than urgent care or a physician office visit.
- When your doctor recommends a prescription drug, ask how much it costs and if there is an over-the-counter or generic option. Check a few different pharmacies for the best price.
- If a prescribed drug is very expensive and you have not used it before, ask whether you could have a smaller number of pills at first to be sure it works. Check to see if there are patient assistance programs to help defray the cost.
- Shop around for services and tests. A variety of tools exist to support comparison shopping; check with your insurance company for help.
- Some employers offer indemnity coverage -- policies that will pay a set dollar amount when you have an accident or are hospitalized. These low-cost coverages can provide peace of mind for those concerned about covering expenses before they meet their health plan’s high deductible.
- If you’ve moved to the high-deductible plan from a more expensive plan, take the savings from lower paycheck deductions and deposit them (tax-free!) in a health savings account. That way you will have some money set aside to help pay for care before you meet the deductible. Many employers will help fund your HSA.
- Take advantage of any opportunities to earn dollars for your HSA by participating in healthy activities like biometric screenings.
These are good suggestions to communicate to employees and their families. Even if you have provided similar guidance in the past, everyone can always use a refresher.
After their failed attempt to pass ACA repeal and replace legislation, President Trump and House Speaker Ryan indicated that they were “moving on” to other legislative priorities. On Tuesday, we learned that Republicans have restarted their conversations about healthcare. On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported the GOP was discussing a new vote as early as next week.
At Mercer, we believe that the current healthcare system is unsustainable, but we urge that changes be made without undue haste and with careful consideration of the many complex factors at play in our system. We are actively advocating for new health savings account rules and the repeal of the Cadillac tax and, as I said in my blog post earlier this week, we stand ready to support lawmakers in shaping policies that will address the underlying causes of healthcare cost growth.
Our conversations with employers across the country echo these priorities. For instance, the morning of the day the bill was pulled, I gave a speech at the North Carolina Business Group on Health annual conference. I asked the group of benefits professionals if they could ask one wish of the President and Congress, what would it be? Responses included:
- Healthcare coverage for all
- Consideration of the consequences of cutting federal funding for Medicaid and public health programs
- Consideration of the consequences of cost-shifting to older pre-Medicare-eligible Americans
- Help addressing unnecessary/inappropriate care, ER visits, and opiate use
- Help with escalating prescription drug costs
- Relief on the ACA reporting requirements
What would your "one wish" be?
One possible fix for the public exchanges? Repeal the ACA provision expanding dependent coverage. Allowing young adults up to age 26 to be covered under their parents’ plans has been one of the law’s most popular provisions, especially since it went into effect at a time when many young people were struggling to find full-time work in the wake of the recession. But it also took these same people out of the potential pool of enrollees when the exchanges opened in 2013. While many factors have contributed to premium spikes in exchange coverage in some states, one quoted across the board has been that fewer young people than expected signed up for coverage. Had young adults not been able get coverage through their parents’ plans, it’s possible a portion of them would have signed up for exchange coverage. And having these younger, and generally healthier (i.e., lower risk) individuals in the pool might have helped to keep the premiums down.
Leading up to Thursday’s vote in the House on the AHCA, the GOP’s repeal and replace bill, lowering the dependent eligibility age to 23 was on the list of possible amendments but then withdrawn. As acknowledged in thisPolitico article, repealing the provision would be political suicide for anyone that proposes it; people don’t react well to losing a benefit they’ve gotten used to having. Yet the upsides for removing this provision are, in principle, aligned with GOP repeal and replace goals, namely, removing additional costs imposed through the ACA and helping to stabilize the individual market.
One approach might be to phase out this provision, or grandfather individuals born before a certain date, so that families have time to prepare and plan for alternative coverage for their older children. Of course, this only works if there’s an affordable health care option for these young adults on the exchanges. If the current subsidies are reduced to the levels proposed under the AHCA (an individual under 30 would only receive $2,000 towards health coverage per year regardless of income or location beginning in 2020), then leaving these individuals to the mercy of the individual market may not be wise; it could create a “black hole” of coverage from age 26 perhaps until the age when people are starting their families and see an absolute need for care. So while employers as well as the individual market could benefit from a rollback of this provision, adequate subsidies on the exchanges would need to be in place to help these individuals purchase and maintain continuous coverage.
Before the ACA, many self-employed individuals found it challenging to find a health plan on the individual market that met their needs, let alone to pay for it. Post ACA, the ability to obtain affordable coverage not tied to an employer has givenentrepreneurs in the growing ‘gig’ economy the flexibility to pursue their goals without having to worry about maintaining health coverage. These days may be coming to an end if the new GOP health care bill passes, however. Under theAmerican Health Care Act or AHCA, subsidies are dependent on age, as opposed to income (like under the ACA), and are not adjusted for geography, even though health costs vary widely depending on where you live. This could mean big changes in the amount of assistance an individual would receive under the AHCA compared to under the ACA. As cited in the article, a 40 year-old in San Francisco making $30,000 a year would receive $800 less a year under the new plan, and a 40 year-old living in Santa Cruz County, CA would see a $2,490 less per year -- potentially putting coverage out of reach.
A study published by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that U.S. has between 54 million and 68 million ‘independent workers’, with some working independently full-time and others using independent/freelance work to supplement their primary income. With the proposed changes under the AHCA, some individuals may try to seek traditional employment for the purpose of healthcare coverage, or they may just choose to go without coverage completely. While critics of ACA subsidies have said they discourage people from seeking employment or advancing their careers since an increase in income would result in a decrease in subsidies, this new plan could have the same discouraging impact on the next generation of entrepreneurs.
In an effort to garner more support for their ACA repeal legislation, House Republican leaders revealed changes to the legislation on Monday night pending the Rules Committee vote before going to the House for their vote. Of greatest interest to employer plan sponsors is the delay in the Cadillac Tax from 2025 to 2026. The bill’s amendment repeals some of the other ACA taxes retroactively to the beginning of 2017 instead of 2018 as originally proposed. Other changes include additional funding to increase tax credits for older Americans and some Medicaid revisions.
In light of the changes, the House Freedom Caucus has indicated they won’t oppose the legislation, but they may still have enough “no” votes to kill the bill. President Trump went to the Hill on Tuesday to help the House Leaders secure support for the bill. In the meantime, the CBO is analyzing the changes and is expected to issue a new CBO score before Thursday’s House vote. The Brookings Institution doesn’t expect a meaningful improvement in the score.
This article discusses the tax conundrum Republicans are facing as they try to repeal portions of the ACA. In short, legislation passed through reconciliation cannot increase the deficit beyond the budget window. With the proposed repeal of most of the ACA taxes, Republicans are using the Cadillac Tax to “smooth over the budget math.” The Cadillac Tax is disliked on both sides of the aisle so there’s still hope for a full repeal before the 2025 effective date. In the meantime, employer groups like the Alliance to Fight the 40, American Benefits Council, and ERIC continue to oppose the tax.
Employers recognize the important role of healthy communities in employee well-being. The government plays an important role in creating healthier communities through the support and funding of public health initiatives. That’s why we found The American Health Care Act’s repeal of the Prevention and Public Health Fund concerning. The fund provides money to the CDC to support disease prevention programs. The loss of funding is likely to impact:
- The federal vaccines program which ensures healthcare providers receive the vaccination doses they need and mobilizes responses to disease outbreaks.
- Public health programs aimed at preventing and reducing the risk of heart disease.
- Programs to reduce the risk of healthcare-associated infections. One-hundred percent of the money the CDC uses for this effort comes from this fund established under the ACA.
Prevention and public health funding addresses community health, and communities are where employees live. Well-being is linked to improved productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism and healthcare utilization – all factors that can impact a business's bottom line. For individuals, health and well-being affects both financial security and quality of life.
Just FYI. Since the ACA was enacted, there has been a succession of repeal and replace proposals coming out of Washington, culminating in this week’s House Republican bill. The Kaiser Family Foundation makes it easier to compare and contrast the proposed changes to specific ACA provisions with an interactive tool posted on their website. Click on a provision, for example, “Premium subsidies for individual,” to see how subsidies are currently handled under the ACA and how that changes in the proposed American Health Care Act. Take it a click further to see this same provision in any of five other proposals, including HHS leader Tom Price’s “Empower Patients First” Act from 2015. Given predictions that the AHCA will have a tough time getting to the President’s desk as currently written, you may want to bookmark this page.
Well, now we know. A week ago, House GOP leaders presented an outline of an ACA repeal and replace plan with a key element missing – the source of revenue to fund the tax credits that would replace subsidies to assist people buying individual insurance. Today, Politico reported that in a leaked draft of ACA repeal-and-replace legislation, GOP lawmakers are proposing to do away with all ACA taxes, including the Cadillac tax. The only source of revenue in the bill is a cap on the income tax exclusion for people receiving health benefits through an employer plan. This differs from the Cadillac tax in that it hits plan members directly, rather than the employer or the plan. The draft bill sets the threshold at relatively high levels, but it is easy to speculate that the threshold could come down if this provision alone must pay for the replace plan.
Of course, this is only a draft – a leaked draft at that – and our lawyers have only just begun reviewing it. But our earlier analyses have shown that under any cap scenario, lower-income people will see the biggest increase in their effective tax rate. Another concern is that, if the goal of the tax is to penalize the most generous plans, basing the cap on premium cost means that plans with older workers and more women, and those located in high-cost areas of the country, will be likely to trigger the tax, since these factor all influence cost as much or more than plan design.
Give the Politico article a read, and if you’re concerned about the effect of a cap on your employee population, now would be a good time to let your representatives know.
Mercer hosts a monthly Washington Update webcast, and as you'd imagine, attendance varies based on the current activity in Washington. No surprise to find a large crowd calling in yesterday to hear the latest news. Employee Benefit News shared the highlights in an article. We could see the ACA replacement plan as early as next week. Specific details are still unknown and when announced will likely be modified as the legislative process begins. Stay tuned – more to come.