Tagged Medicaid

Health Law Could Act As Safety Net For Millions, But Marketing Has Been So Severely Cut They Might Not Know It

As Coronavirus Spreads, Workers Could Lean On ACA Coverage Protection

Concerns about health care during the coronavirus pandemic are raising the profile of the federal Affordable Care Act, which can help those who have lost their jobs with an option to get insurance.

Julie Rovner, Kaiser Health News’ chief Washington correspondent, talked to WBUR’s “Here & Now” host Jeremy Hobson on Friday about efforts to get the federal government to let people have a special enrollment period for coverage plans sold on the ACA marketplaces, as well as the effect massive job layoffs will have on Medicaid.

Rovner pointed out that workers whose insurance was cut off because they lost their jobs are eligible to buy a new plan through the ACA but that consumer advocates are pressing for the marketplaces to reopen to give others who didn’t sign up for coverage last fall an opportunity to reconsider.

Rovner also recently spoke with Lauren Gilger and Steve Goldstein at KJZZ in Phoenix about Gov. Doug Ducey’s unsuccessful request to the federal government to reopen the insurance marketplace in Arizona.

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Advocates Say There Must Be Investment In Medicaid Which Will Likely Become Default Insurance Plan For Many

Medicaid Nearing ‘Eye Of The Storm’ As Newly Unemployed Look For Coverage

As the coronavirus roils the economy and throws millions of Americans out of work, Medicaid is emerging as a default insurance plan for many of the newly unemployed. That could produce unprecedented strains on the vital health insurance program, according to state officials and policy researchers.

Americans are being urged to stay home and practice “social distancing” to prevent the spread of the virus, causing businesses to shutter their doors and lay off workers. The Labor Department reported Thursday that more than 6.6 million people signed up for unemployment insurance during the week that ended March 28. This number shattered the record set the previous week, with 3.3 million sign-ups. Many of these newly unemployed people may turn to Medicaid for their families.

Policymakers have often used Medicaid to help people gain health coverage and health care in response to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But never has it faced a public health crisis and economic emergency in which people nationwide need its help all in virtually the same month.

“Medicaid is absolutely going to be in the eye of the storm here,” said Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families. “It is the backbone of our public health system, our public coverage system, and will see increased enrollment due to the economic conditions.”

Meeting those needs will require hefty investments ― both in money and manpower.

Medicaid — which is run jointly by the states and federal government and covers about 70 million Americans ― is already seeing early application spikes. Because insurance requests typically lag behind those for other benefits, the numbers are expected to grow in the coming months.

“We have been through recessions in the past, such as in 2009, and saw what that meant,” said Matt Salo, who heads the National Association of Medicaid Directors. “We are going to see that on steroids.”

The majority of states have expanded their Medicaid programs since 2014 to cover more low-income adults under a provision in the Affordable Care Act. That may help provide a cushion in those areas. In the 14 states that have chosen not to expand, many of the newly unemployed adults will not be eligible for coverage.

It’s possible the pandemic could change the decision-making calculus for non-expansion states, Salo said. “The pandemic is like a punch in the mouth.”

But even without expansion in those states, the Medicaid rolls could increase with more children coming into the system as their families’ finances deteriorate. Many states don’t have the resources or systems in place to meet the demand.

“It is going to hit faster and harder than we’ve ever experienced before,” Salo said.

The unique circumstances of social distancing impose new challenges for those whose jobs are to enroll people for coverage. In California, where more than a million people have filed for unemployment insurance since March 13, much of the workforce that would typically be signing people up and processing their paperwork is now working from home, which adds a layer of complexity in terms of accessing files and documents, and can inhibit communication.

“It’s going to be certainly more difficult than it was under the [2008] recession,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director for the County Welfare Directors Association of California. She said that although strides have been made in the past decade to set up better online forms and call centers, it will still be a heavy lift to get people enrolled without seeing them in person.

In some states, the challenges to the system are already noticeable.

Utah, for instance, has seen a 46% increase in applications for Medicaid. (These applications can be for individuals or families.) In March 2019, about 14,000 people applied. This March, it was more than 20,400.

“Our services are needed now more than ever,” said Muris Prses, assistant director of eligibility services for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which processes Medicaid enrollment. The state typically takes 15 days to determine whether someone is eligible, he said, though that will increase by several days because of the surge in applicants and some staff working at home.

In Nevada, where the hotel- and casino-dominated economy has been hit particularly hard, applications for public benefits programs, including food stamps and Medicaid, skyrocketed from 200 a day in February to 2,000 in mid-March, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. The volume of calls to a consumer hotline for Medicaid and health coverage questions is four times the regular amount.

In Ohio, the number of Medicaid applications has already exceeded what’s typical for this time of year. The state expects that figure to continue to climb.

States that haven’t yet seen the surge warned that it’s almost certainly coming. And as layoffs continue, some are already experiencing the strains on the system, including processing times that could leave people uninsured for months, while Medicaid applications process.

For 28-year-old Kristen Wolfe, of Salt Lake City, who lost her job and her employer-sponsored health insurance March 20, it’s a terrifying time.

Wolfe, who has lupus — an autoimmune disorder that requires regular doctor appointments and prescription medication ― quickly applied for Medicaid. But after she filled in her details, including a zero-dollar income, she learned the decision on her eligibility could take as long as 90 days. She called the Utah Medicaid agency and, after being on hold for more than an hour, was told they did not know when she would hear back.

“With my health, it’s scary to leave things in limbo,” said Wolfe, who used her almost-expired insurance last week to order 90-day medication refills, just in case. “I am pretty confident I will qualify, but there is always the ‘What if I don’t?’”

Others have reported smoother sailing, though.

Jen Wittlin, 33 — who, until recently, managed the now-closed bar in Providence, Rhode Island’s Dean Hotel ― qualified for Medicaid coverage starting April 1. She was able to sign up online after waiting about half an hour on the phone to get help answering specific questions. Once she receives a check for unemployment insurance, the state will reassess her income — currently zero ― to see if she still qualifies.

“It was all immediate,” she said.

In fact, she said, she is now working to help newly uninsured former colleagues also enroll in the program, using the advice the state gave her.

In California, officials are trying to reassign some employees — who are now working remotely ― to help with the surge. But the system to determine Medicaid eligibility is complicated and requires time-intensive training, Senderling-McDonald said. She’s trying to rehire people who’ve retired and relying on overtime from staffers.

“It’s hard to expand this particular workforce very, very quickly by a lot,” she said. “We can’t just stick a new person in front of a computer and tell them to go. They’re going to screw everything up.”

The move away from in-office sign-ups is also a disadvantage for older people and those who speak English as a second language, two groups who frequently felt more comfortable enrolling in person, she added.

Meanwhile, increasing enrollment and the realities of the coronavirus will likely create a need for costly medical care across the population.

“What about when we start having many people who may be in the hospital, in ICUs or on ventilators?” said Maureen Corcoran, the director of Ohio’s Medicaid program. “We don’t have any specific answers yet.”

These factors will hit just as states ― which will experience shrinking tax revenue because of the plunging economy — have less money to pay their share of the Medicaid tab.

“It’s all compounded,” said Lisa Watson, a deputy secretary at Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, which oversees Medicaid.

The federal government pays, on average, about 61% of the costs for traditional Medicaid and about 90% of the costs for people who joined the program through the ACA expansion. The rest comes from state coffers. And, unlike the federal government, states are constitutionally required to balance their budgets. The financial squeeze could force cuts in other areas, like education, child welfare or law enforcement.

On March 18, Congress agreed to bump up what Washington pays by 6.2 percentage points as part of the second major stimulus bill aimed at the economic consequences of the pandemic. That will barely make a dent, Salo argued.

“The small bump is good, and we are glad it’s there, but in no way is that going to be sufficient,” he said.

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KHN’s ‘What The Health?’: All Coronavirus All The Time


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The medical and economic needs laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic are forcing some immediate changes to the U.S. health system. Congress, in its latest relief bill, provided $100 billion in funding for the hospital industry alone. Meanwhile, the federal government has quickly removed previous barriers to telehealth and other sometimes controversial practices.

But big fights are still brewing, including whether the federal government will reopen the Affordable Care Act marketplaces it runs and whether states can use emergency powers to ban abortions as “elective medical procedures.”

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The ACA was passed on the heels of the Great Recession. The coronavirus outbreak has produced the first big economic downturn since then, and the law’s provisions to expand Medicaid and to provide an insurance option to those without jobs could provide a critical safety net during this crisis.
  • About a dozen states running their own ACA insurance marketplaces have opened up enrollment again to let people who did not enroll in the fall but are feeling the pinch from the coronavirus pandemic to reconsider. President Donald Trump said this week that he is mulling a similar move, but the messages from the administration on such action have been confusing.
  • People who had insurance through work and have lost their jobs don’t need a special enrollment period to sign up for an Obamacare plan. They are eligible because their job situation changed. However, the administration has not been publicizing that message.
  • Hospitals are eager to receive the $100 billion appropriated by Congress in response to the influx of patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But the administration has not yet said how that money will be apportioned.
  • A handful of states have prohibited abortions during the coronavirus emergency because, officials say, they are seeking to preserve protective gear for hospital staff treating COVID-19 patients. But it’s not clear that the abortion procedures ― especially medication abortions — are interfering with efforts to safeguard protective clothing or masks needed by hospitals. And women who do not get abortions will consume far more medical care by remaining pregnant and giving birth.

Also, this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Liz Szabo, who reported the latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” installment about a patient who underwent a very expensive genetic test. If you have an outrageous medical bill you would like to share with us, you can do that here.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: The New York Times’ “A Ventilator Stockpile With One Hitch: Thousands Do Not Work,” by David E. Sanger, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Nicholas Kulish

Joanne Kenen: The New Yorker’s “The Life and Death of Juan Sanabria, One of New York City’s First Cornavirus Victims,” by Jonathan Blitzer

Margot Sanger-Katz: Bloomberg News’ “Hospitals Tell Doctors They’ll Be Fired If They Speak Out About Lack of Gear,” by Olivia Carville, Emma Court and Kristen V. Brown

Alice Miranda Ollstein: The Washington Post’s “Trump Ban on Fetal Tissue Research Blocks Coronavirus Treatment Effort,” by Amy Goldstein


To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcherGoogle PlaySpotify, or Pocket Casts.

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COVID-19 Bonanza: Stimulus Hands Health Industry Billions Not Directly Related To Pandemic

The coronavirus stimulus package Congress rushed out last week to help the nation’s hospitals and health care networks hands the industry billions of dollars in windfall subsidies and other spending that has little to do with defeating the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $2 trillion legislation, which President Donald Trump signed Friday, includes more than $100 billion in emergency funds to compensate hospitals and other health care providers for lost revenue and other costs associated with COVID-19. The measure also calls for spending up to $16 billion to replenish the nation’s depleted stockpile of medical gear, such as ventilators, medicines and personal protective equipment, or PPE.

But health care businesses will get billions of dollars in additional funding not directly related to the pandemic, in some cases because Congress agreed to reverse scheduled cuts in the rates paid by Medicaid and Medicare, which the federal government had tried for years to impose.

“Anything that could tangentially be related to the crisis lobbyists tried to get stuffed in this bill ― particularly health-care-related items,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group. While the stimulus package is “not as big” a “Christmas tree” as some other bills, Ellis said, “I’m sure we’ll find a few baubles and gifts along the way.”

Hospitals have won widespread praise as their doctors and other medical staffs labor under perilous conditions, including shortages of protective gear. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the industry emerged as a big winner in the stimulus negotiations. Not only can hospitals draw on the $100 billion fund to stem their losses and cover other costs, but they will also see a boost in one stream of revenue as Congress overturned some planned rate cuts.

More than 3,000 hospitals that treat outsize numbers of Medicaid or uninsured patients, for instance, will share in an $8 billion windfall through the stimulus provision that reverses cuts in their Medicaid payments for 2020 and 2021.

Separately, hospitals will rake in at least $3 billion more because of a temporary suspension of a 2% cut in Medicare fees, according to the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents more than 1,000 for-profit hospitals and health systems. The infusion of cash also benefits doctors, nursing homes, home health companies and others.

“That’s welcome news during this time of crisis,” said Joanne Cunningham, executive director of the Partnership for Quality Home Healthcare.

Also tucked into the stimulus: a rollback of planned rate cuts to clinical laboratories and some medical equipment suppliers.

At this stage, it is unclear how much these measures will add to the COVID-19 tab ― or if far more stimulus would be required for the health care industry to rebound.

Take the 2% rate cut known as “the sequester.” The Office of Management and Budget expected it would save Medicare $16.2 billion in fiscal 2021. But the stimulus bill rescinds that rate cut from May 1 through the end of this year. As part of the legislation, Congress said it would, in effect, recoup the payments later by adding another year to the sequester. Whether lawmakers will follow through on that is anyone’s guess.

Anders Gilberg, senior vice president of government affairs for the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), expects the sequester relief to translate to a “huge” financial boost for more than 15,000 medical practices his group represents.

“This would never have been done under any other circumstances,” Gilberg said. “The situation was recognized as dire.”

Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, said the stimulus offers “needed financial relief to hard-hit workers, health systems and physician practices. At this critical moment, physician practices need significant financial support to sustain themselves and continue to meet the health care needs of all Americans during this time.”

Similarly, American Hospital Association CEO Rick Pollack called the legislation “an important first step forward. But, he added, “more will need to be done to deal with the unprecedented challenge of this virus.”

In a nod to clinical laboratories, which have helped bail out the federal government’s early failure to supply enough COVID-19 tests, the stimulus delayed planned rate cuts in 2021 likely to amount to tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Medicare officials have been at odds with the lab industry for years over rates for lab tests.

While other health care interests praised the bill, the laboratory trade association said it comes up short.

Just before the Senate passed the stimulus bill Wednesday, American Clinical Laboratory Association President Julie Khani slammed Congress for not designating funding to support labs. She said labs were in “an untenable situation, absorbing growing, uncompensated costs for testing specimens with no assurance that they will be appropriately or fairly reimbursed for all the tests they are performing.”

She added a not-so-veiled threat, saying: “If Congress fails to designate essential emergency funding for clinical laboratories to support our efforts, labs will be soon be forced to make difficult decisions about whether they can keep building the [testing] capacity our nation needs.”

The lab association, in a statement to Kaiser Health News, said labs have absorbed “stunning” Medicare reimbursement cuts of as much as 30% for many common tests in recent years.

In public securities filings this year, lab giants Quest Diagnostics Inc. and Laboratory Corp of America Holdings, known as LabCorp, reported they expected rate cuts in 2020 totaling more than $150 million. LabCorp said it supported the views of the lab association. Quest did not respond to a request for comment.

While labs processing COVID-19 tests missed out on direct funding, they could be eligible for some of the $100 billion allocated for hospitals and other providers to cover their losses, congressional aides said.

And the stimulus measure states that even in the event a lab is out-of-network, health plans are expected to pay the price it sets — as long as the lab publishes that price online — or negotiate with the lab.

Given that laws in some states ban surprise billing in particular, this provision seems to favor the labs, said Katie Keith, a Georgetown University law professor and health policy expert. “No one just lets the provider set the price,” she said.

The lab association disputes that, saying that many health plans are expected to pay them less than the $51.50 government recommended for a COVID-19 test.

Just how the $100 billion in health care funding will be distributed and how much oversight will occur is another unknown.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has the authority to decide how long the emergency provisions remain in effect. Tracking all that money will be a challenge as well.

Ellis, the taxpayer advocate, noted that no government agency “is ready to handle the rush of extra funding.” He said that the stimulus grants extra resources to inspector general offices to monitor spending.

“There will be waste, there will be abuse,” he said. “It’s about exposing and rooting it out.”

The HHS Office of Inspector General expects to receive $4 million to support this oversight, according to spokesman Donald White.

Some groups aren’t waiting to compete over the $100 billion. The MGMA sent a letter March 27 to Azar and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services chief Seema Verma asking for more direct help. Gilberg noted that some medical practices, such as doctors who perform colonoscopies, have not been able to continue their work.

“Doctors and physician practices are having a lot of trouble right now,” Gilberg said. “They are literally shut down, and they are having financial troubles. Their operations have come to a full halt.”

KHN correspondents Rachana Pradhan and Emmarie Huetteman contributed to this report.

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