Tag: Insurers

Judging the Abortion Pill

The Host

This week, the eyes of the nation are on Texas, where a federal judge who formerly worked for a conservative Christian advocacy group is set to decide whether the abortion pill mifepristone can stay on the market. Mifepristone is half of a two-pill regimen that now accounts for more than half of the abortions in the United States.

Meanwhile, Novo Nordisk, another of the three large drug companies that dominate the market for diabetes treatments, has announced it will cut the price of many of its insulin products. Eli Lilly announced its cuts early this month. But the push for more affordable insulin from activists and members of Congress is not the only reason for the change: Because of quirks in the way the drug market works, cutting prices could actually save the companies money in the long run.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Jessie Hellmann of CQ Roll Call, Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet, and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • The federal judge examining the decades-old approval of mifepristone could issue a decision at any time after a hearing largely behind closed doors, during which he appeared open to restricting access to the drug.
  • Democratic governors seek to counter the chill of Republican states’ warnings to pharmacies about distributing mifepristone, and a separate lawsuit in Texas seeks to set a precedent for punishing people who aren’t medical providers for assisting someone in obtaining an abortion.
  • In pandemic news, Congress is moving forward with legislation that would force the Biden administration to declassify intelligence related to the origins of covid-19, while the editor of Cochrane Reviews posted a clarification of its recently published masking study, noting it is “inaccurate” to say it found that masks are not effective.
  • Top federal health officials sent an unusual letter to Florida’s surgeon general, warning that his embrace of vaccination misinformation is harmful, even deadly, to Americans. While covid vaccines come with some risk of negative health effects, contracting covid carries a higher risk of poor outcomes.
  • Novo Nordisk’s announcement that it will cut insulin prices puts pressure on Sanofi, the remaining insulin maker that has yet to adjust its prices.
  • The Veterans Health Administration will cover Leqembi, a new Alzheimer’s drug. The decision comes as Medicare considers whether it will also cover the drug. Experts caution that new drugs shaking up the weight-loss market could prove costly for Medicare.
  • Washington is eyeing changes to federal rules that would affect the practice of medicine. One change would force health plans to speed up “prior authorization” decisions by health insurers and increase transparency around denials, which supporters say would help patients better access needed care. Another proposal would ban noncompete clauses in contracts, including in health care. Arguments for and against the change both cite the issue of physician burnout — though they disagree on whether the ban would make the problem better or worse.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: “Tradeoffs” podcast’s “The Conservative Clash Over Abortion Bans,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein and Dan Gorenstein

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “Sharpton Dodges the Spotlight on Latest Push to Ban Menthol Cigarettes,” by Julia Marsh

Sarah Karlin-Smith: Allure’s “With New Legislation, You Can Expect More Recalls to Hit the Beauty Industry,” by Elizabeth Siegel and Deanna Pai

Jessie Hellmann: The New York Times’ “Opioid Settlement Hinders Patients’ Access to a Wide Array of Drugs,” by Christina Jewett and Ellen Gabler

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:

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Kids’ Mental Health Care Leaves Parents in Debt and in the Shadows

Rachel and her husband adopted Marcus out of Guatemalan foster care as a 7-month-old infant and brought him home to Lansing, Michigan. With a round face framed by a full head of dark hair, Marcus was giggly and verbal — learning names of sea animals off flashcards, impressing other adults.

But in preschool, Marcus began resisting school, throwing himself on the ground, or pretending to be sick — refusals that got more intense and difficult to deal with. His parents sought therapy for him. Rachel and her husband had some savings for retirement, college, and emergencies; at first, the cost of Marcus’ therapy was not an issue. “We didn’t realize where it was going,” Rachel said.

Today, Marcus is 15 and has a younger sibling. His parents have depleted their savings and gone into debt to pay for treatments for his severe depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. Frequently agitated and increasingly violent, Marcus could not attend a regular school. Over the years, he’s needed weekly therapy, hospitalization, and specialized schooling — all of which has cost tens of thousands of dollars a month.

He required lots of medical and mental health appointments that were often many miles from the family’s home. Rachel ultimately quit her real estate broker’s job to care for her son, and with that the family took another financial hit. With no good treatment options within hours of where they live, Marcus is now in residential care out of state that specializes in therapy for children with conditions like his. That’s helped modulate his behavior, but also costs $12,500 a month.

“All of our savings is gone,” said Rachel, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her son’s privacy. She and her husband have taken out a second mortgage and borrowed against their retirement accounts.

“How are we going to send our kids to school?” she said. “How are we going to recover from this? I don’t know.” Just surviving the string of crises is all-consuming. “Those thoughts in your mind — there’s no space for that when you are just trying to keep your child alive.”

Untold numbers of families like Rachel’s are dealing with myriad challenges finding and paying for mental health care, and then ending up in debt. There are too few therapists and psychologists in the U.S. — and fewer still who accept insurance. That compounds the financial toll on families.

Tabulating the impact isn’t easy. Many do what Rachel did: They refinance their houses, drain college savings, or borrow from family. But that kind of borrowing often isn’t included in estimates of medical debt. As a result, it’s hard to know how much families are paying out of their pockets for mental health treatment.

A recent KFF poll designed to measure the many ways people borrow to pay medical bills found that about 100 million Americans have some kind of health care debt, and 20% of those owe money for mental health services.

Those who can’t afford to borrow sometimes try to get coverage for their children under public insurance like Medicaid, which sometimes means reducing their income to qualify.

When Even Medicaid Isn’t a Safety Net

After her workplace health insurance denied coverage for her 9-year-old daughter, Colleen O’Donnell, a single mom from Providence, Rhode Island, stopped working so her income would fall below Medicaid’s limit. O’Donnell, a registered nurse, could have made lots of bonus pay caring for covid patients. Instead, she said, she needed to stay home to care for her daughter, who suffers from, among other things, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder — a condition that goes far beyond normal tween moodiness. Treatment didn’t require just medication or visits to the doctor or hospital; the girl also needed wraparound therapy that included in-home care. The child’s unpredictable moods and violent tantrums made it impossible to send her to school, or for her mother to hire a sitter for her.

“Qualifying for Medicaid means essentially you’re living right around the poverty level, which means I’m not generating any sort of wealth, I’m not saving for retirement or anything like that,” said O’Donnell. She took on a second mortgage for $22,000. She estimates at least $60,000 in lost wages a year. But staying home with her child was still worth it, she said.

Some desperate families go to even more extreme lengths to get mental health care covered by Medicaid. Some leave their children at hospitals, relinquishing custody so they become wards of the state. Others simply forgo care altogether.

So, how much is this costing families across America? And how many are forgoing care? It’s hard to know.

Lack of Data Keeps Struggling Families in the Shadows

“We don’t have real data,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former member of Congress and founder of the Kennedy Forum, a mental health advocacy group. Across the board, he said, there’s a lamentable lack of data when it comes to mental illness. “We don’t track this. We have a hodgepodge of reporting that’s not standardized.”

That lack of data keeps many people in the shadows, Kennedy said. It makes it hard to hold insurers accountable for legal obligations they have to pay for mental health care, or to argue for specific policy changes from regulators that oversee them. Kennedy said that problem should not fall on the shoulders of the many families who are too busy fighting to survive.

“If you’re a family or someone who has one of these illnesses, you don’t have the capacity for self-advocacy, right? And shame still factors in, in a large way,” he said.

Rachel, the mother in Lansing, estimates Marcus’ treatment costs topped a quarter-million dollars over the past two years alone. Nearly all that, Rachel said, was driven by care their insurance company declined to cover.

Over the years, Marcus underwent numerous neuropsychological tests, checking everything from intelligence and personality to trauma and motor skills to gauge the gaps in how he perceives the world. Each test cost several thousand dollars. Weekly therapy cost $120. Special schools, including a wilderness therapy program, cost thousands of dollars a month, and Rachel said insurance covered almost none of it.

The insurer cited various reasons: The wilderness therapy, even if it worked, was deemed too experimental. Other treatments weren’t in-network. Even when Marcus became increasingly violent and a danger to himself and others, insurance agents repeatedly told Rachel that various types of inpatient or residential treatment programs and specialists recommended to her weren’t covered because they were “not medically necessary” or would require reauthorization within days.

Meanwhile, Marcus’ problems at home were escalating. “There were times that I hid,” Rachel said, voice breaking. “I found hiding places so that my kid couldn’t find me. He would hurt me. He would attack me, throw things at me, push me.”

Faced with this do-or-die situation, Rachel and her husband decided to pay the costs of the care themselves and fight it out with insurance and lawyers later. For the past year, they’ve spent $150,000 to send Marcus to his out-of-state school.

What About ‘Mental Health Parity’ in Reimbursement?

That growing reliance on out-of-network care for mental health treatment is a national trend, despite various federal and state laws requiring insurers to cover services like addiction treatment on par with CT scans, surgeries, or cancer treatments. A 2019 report commissioned by the Mental Health Treatment and Research Institute found those disparities getting markedly worse, especially among children, between 2013 and 2017 — effectively forcing more patients to seek behavioral health care outside their insurer’s network.

AHIP, a health insurer trade group, said the industry complies with existing laws and is working to expand options to meet increased demand for mental health care.

“Given the workforce and capacity shortages in [mental health and substance use disorder] care, it’s important that patients receive the appropriate level of care, helping to preserve higher levels of care for those who need it most,” David Allen, an AHIP spokesperson, said in an emailed statement. He said insurers are taking measures like adding new providers to their networks, and adding telehealth options to expand their reach into places like schools and family physicians’ offices. But, he said, not every kind of care should qualify for coverage: “It is important to make sure that people receive high-quality care based on scientific evidence.”

Regulators Have Been Slow to Police Insurers

But Deborah Steinberg, a health policy lawyer at the Legal Action Center, which advocates for consumers, said insurers improperly deny coverage for appropriate treatments far too often. Few people know how to determine that, and end up paying the bill.

“They are actually not necessarily bills [patients and families] should be paying, because a lot of the time these are illegal practices,” Steinberg said. “There are so many complicated laws here that people don’t understand. And when people pay the bills or take it out as credit card debt, they’re not challenging those practices.”

Nor have regulators been aggressive in policing insurers, or fining them for violations.

That’s something Ali Khawar pledges to change. Khawar, an acting assistant secretary at the Labor Department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration, which oversees private insurers, said his agency’s report to Congress earlier this year showed high levels of violations. The report also showed the insurance industry failing to keep adequate data on their compliance with parity laws.

But, Khawar said, coverage of mental health care is a problem he hears about continually, and the fact that so many families are struggling has made this a top priority for his agency. “There is a level of attention, a level of resources being put to these issues that is kind of unprecedented,” he said.

Often, it falls to attorneys general to enforce insurance rules, and the willingness and resources available to do so varies by state.

In Michigan, where attorney J.J. Conway practices, the state has not been active in investigating the industry, he said. So families must seek recourse on their own, he said, if they want to dispute denial of coverage with their insurer. Conway, who represents Rachel’s family and many other parents, said he’s seeing the biggest surge in mental health disputes in his 25 years as a lawyer.

Conway said there’s a strange silver lining in the sheer number of families now struggling to get mental health coverage. The cases are so numerous, he said, he hopes collectively they’ll eventually force a change.

About This Project

“Diagnosis: Debt” is a reporting partnership between KHN and NPR exploring the scale, impact, and causes of medical debt in America.

The series draws on the “KFF Health Care Debt Survey,” a poll designed and analyzed by public opinion researchers at KFF in collaboration with KHN journalists and editors. The survey was conducted Feb. 25 through March 20, 2022, online and via telephone, in English and Spanish, among a nationally representative sample of 2,375 U.S. adults, including 1,292 adults with current health care debt and 382 adults who had health care debt in the past five years. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample and 3 percentage points for those with current debt. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher.

Additional research was conducted by the Urban Institute, which analyzed credit bureau and other demographic data on poverty, race, and health status to explore where medical debt is concentrated in the U.S. and what factors are associated with high debt levels.

The JPMorgan Chase Institute analyzed records from a sampling of Chase credit card holders to look at how customers’ balances may be affected by major medical expenses.

Reporters from KHN and NPR also conducted hundreds of interviews with patients across the country; spoke with physicians, health industry leaders, consumer advocates, debt lawyers, and researchers; and reviewed scores of studies and surveys about medical debt.

Contraception Is Free to Women, Except When It’s Not

For Stephanie Force, finding a birth control method that she likes and can get without paying out-of-pocket has been a struggle, despite the Affordable Care Act’s promise of free contraceptives for women and adolescent girls in most health plans.

The 27-year-old physician recruiter in Roanoke, Virginia, was perfectly happy with the NuvaRing, a flexible vaginal ring that women insert monthly to release hormones to prevent pregnancy. But her insurer, Anthem, stopped covering the branded product and switched her to a generic version in early 2020. Force said the new product left her with headaches and feeling irritable and short-tempered.

After talking to her OB-GYN, Force tried an IUD. But that made her feel worse: She had bad cramps, gained 10 pounds and developed severe hormonal acne. Plus, she was charged $248 for an ultrasound her provider used to guide the insertion of the device, a charge she successfully fought.

Force also considered a couple of birth control products approved in recent years: a non-hormonal vaginal gel called Phexxi and a vaginal ring called Annovera that can be used for a year. But Phexxi isn’t covered by her employer health plan, and she would owe a $45 copayment for Annovera.

Despite the ACA’s guarantees of free contraception coverage, Force’s experience illustrates that even for women whose health plans are subject to the law’s requirements, obtaining the right product at no cost can be onerous. New types of contraceptives aren’t automatically incorporated into the federal list of required methods that insurers use to guide coverage decisions. In addition, some health plans continue to discourage use of even long-established methods like IUDs by requiring providers to get approval from the plan before prescribing them.

Consumer advocates who have studied the issue say a process is spelled out in federal rules for women to get the contraceptive they need, but far too few people know that is an option.

selfie portait photo of Stephanie Force
Despite the ACA’s guarantees of free contraception coverage, Stephanie Force found out firsthand that obtaining the right product at no cost can be onerous. Force says she was unaware of any process she could have used to get the NuvaRing covered without cost sharing. Neither her health care provider nor the insurer mentioned the possibility.(Stephanie Force)

Ultimately, Force went back to the generic version of the NuvaRing, despite the side effects she continues to experience. She’d prefer to be on the branded NuvaRing, which didn’t give her problems, and the ping-ponging from method to method has left her exhausted and furious.

“I cannot believe what hoops I have had to jump through between September 2020 and June 2021,” Force said, “between switching from the generic NuvaRing to the IUD and then back, fighting my insurance and OB-GYN’s office on the ultrasound charge.”

In a statement, Anthem said, “Anthem health plans cover 222 contraceptive products at $0 cost share on our ACA Preventive List. We cover at least one product” in each of 18 categories of contraception methods approved by the FDA.

Contraception is a very personal choice, and what meets one woman’s needs may not meet another’s. If avoiding pregnancy is a woman’s top priority, a virtually fail-safe method like an IUD may be the right solution. But for someone who’s considering getting pregnant soon, a readily reversible method like a birth control pill might be the best option. Side effects are important to consider as well, since women respond differently to the hormones in various birth control products.

Before the ACA required no-cost birth control coverage, researchers estimate, up to 44% of women’s out-of-pocket health care spending went toward contraceptives. The ACA required most commercial health plans to cover a comprehensive list of FDA-approved methods without charging women anything. Church plans and religious nonprofits as well as employers and schools that object to contraception are exempt from the coverage requirements. Plans that were grandfathered under the law are also exempt. Uninsured women don’t benefit from the mandate either.

But the federal rules do not require health plans to cover every contraceptive. After the ACA passed in 2010, the federal Health Resources & Services Administration developed guidelines for women’s preventive services. Those guidelines say women should have access without cost sharing to a list that covers the 18 FDA-approved methods, including oral contraceptives, vaginal rings and cervical caps, IUDs, implantable rods and sterilization. Under federal rules, health plans must cover at least one product in each category.

But neither the HRSA guidelines nor a birth control chart published by the FDA addresses newer methods, including the gel Phexxi, which regulates vaginal acidity to reduce the odds a sperm reaches an egg. It was approved by the FDA last year.

Nor do they incorporate fertility-awareness mobile apps the FDA approved in recent years such as Natural Cycles, which tracks a woman’s temperature and menstrual cycle to avoid pregnancy.

“There’s a real need for new guidance that keeps up with new methods,” said Mara Gandal-Powers, director of birth control access at the National Women’s Law Center.

Many insurers have balked at covering Phexxi, said Rameshwari Gupta, director of strategic markets for Evofem Biosciences, which markets Phexxi. A box of 12 single-use applicators — consumers use one before having sex — costs $267.50 without insurance, she said.

“When I started talking to payers, they all said, ‘Where are you on this FDA chart?’” she said.

According to an FDA spokesperson, the birth control chart is for consumer education purposes only and “was not created with the intent of driving coverage decisions.” The agency is in the process of updating it.

In a statement, HRSA said it is reviewing the evidence on contraceptives and expects to complete its review late this year. If it opts to make revisions, it will publish draft recommendations to update the women’s preventive services guidelines. These will be finalized after a public comment period and become effective a year later.

At this point, health plans consider Phexxi a spermicide and are required to cover only one type of spermicide without cost sharing, said Kristine Grow, a senior vice president at AHIP, a health insurance trade organization.

“If Phexxi is indeed considered a new ‘method’ of contraception, both the FDA and HRSA would need to make this clear,” she added.

The vaginal ring Annovera, approved by the FDA in 2018, is typically covered by health plans, according to Grow, though it may not be available without cost sharing. The average retail price is $2,457 a year, according to GoodRx.

One way plans have made it difficult for women to access certain contraceptives, even those on the list of approved methods, is by requiring that their providers get approval from the insurer first, often by providing documentation that the product is medically necessary.

Under UnitedHealthcare’s coverage policy for Phexxi, for example, before coverage will be authorized, members must have documented reasons that they are unable to use eight other contraceptive methods, including oral contraceptives, the contraceptive patch, a vaginal ring, injections and spermicides. Providers also must attest that they have counseled patients that Phexxi is less effective at preventing pregnancy than some other methods.

In a statement, UHC said it covers “a broad array” of generic and brand-name options, and it follows scientific evidence to develop its list.

Yet consumers have a way to get the specific drug that is most appropriate for them, according to a report by the National Women’s Law Center.

Under federal rules, if a doctor or other health care provider determines that a patient needs a particular contraceptive, even if it’s not on the list of approved products for the patient’s plan, the insurer is required to have an expedient process for the patient to seek a waiver.

“It’s not up to the insurance company whether to cover that method; it’s up to the provider,” said Adam Sonfield, executive editor for policy analysis at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy organization focused on women’s reproductive health.

But according to the National Women’s Law Center report, many insurers, patients and their providers aren’t aware of the requirement, and state agencies don’t enforce these so-called exceptions policies.

If patients run into trouble getting the method they want, “we typically recommend filing an appeal with their insurance provider,” said Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center.

Stephanie Force said she was unaware of any process she could have used to get the NuvaRing covered without cost sharing. Neither her health care provider nor the insurer mentioned the possibility.

She recently had an appointment with a new provider, who she hopes will be a better advocate for her.