Tagged Medicaid

Proposed ‘Public Charge’ Policy Would Have ‘Deleterious Impact’ On Dallas’ Economy And Public Health, Mayor Says

The city is the latest to take a stand against the Trump administration’s proposed policy that would penalize legal immigrants who are seeking green cards for accepting government aid such as Medicaid. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers at the national level are coming out against the proposal.

Must-Reads Of The Week On Health Care

Your regular Breeze correspondent, and its creator, Brianna Labuskes, is taking a break, but we didn’t want you to be without some semblance of a report today of things you don’t want to miss in health care.

So I’ll do my best at filling in. Be kind, and check back next week for the really good stuff.

One of the biggest bits of news this week was a coughed-up blot clot from the lung. Not sure why that seemed to fascinate people. We can skip that, but feel free to look.

The Atlantic: Doctors Aren’t Sure How This Even Came Out of a Patient

A more authentic bit of news was the report that health care spending slowed in 2017. It’s still growing, mind you, but growing more slowly. That’s not terribly surprising, because it has been slowing for a number of years. What Dan Diamond over at Politico calls “slowth.” It increased 3.9 percent to $3.5 trillion, while the year before it had grown 4.8 percent. Another way to look at it: Americans spend $10,739 per person on health care. HuffPost had a nice analysis:

HuffPost: America’s Health Care Spending Keeps Rising Really Slowly. Seriously.

Read the full report here.

The New York Times attempts to explain why enrollment in Obamacare is down. Any number of things could factor in, like higher employment at places that offer health insurance, no mandate forcing people to enroll or people signing up for Medicaid. Further study may present an answer.

The New York Times: Why Is Obamacare Enrollment Down?

This week, the Annals of Internal Medicine retracted a 2009 paper by Brian Wasinick, the now-discredited Cornell University researcher. The half-baked paper had claimed that the recipes in the more modern editions of the classic “Joy of Cooking” cookbook had more calories than the original. The always enlightening Retraction Watch website, which tracks medical and scientific research that has been undermined, has the whole story of the delightful sleuthing that led to the debunking. (And while you are on the site, peruse all the other Wasinick papers on food research that have been rescinded.)

Retraction Watch: The Joy of Cooking, Vindicated: Journal Retracts Two More Brian Wansink Papers

One of my favorite writers on health care makes an often overlooked point about health insurance: Its goal ought to be the same as other insurance, that is, to safeguard the financial health of beneficiaries. And Aaron Carroll, who is also a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, says that several studies show it does exactly that.

Read the whole piece for yourself:

JAMA Forum: Medicaid as a Safeguard for Financial Health

As a bonus on this topic, here is an academic paper surfacing this week on the effects of the Affordable Care Act on mortgage delinquencies. Spoiler: The value of fewer evictions and foreclosures is substantial compared to the cost of the ACA subsidies.

The Effect of Health Insurance on Home Payment Delinquency: Evidence from ACA Marketplace Subsidies

The Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that seeks to improve health care,  wanted to know how the Affordable Care Act affected the uninsured and the insured. As its chart that summarizes its findings issued this week shows, there was considerable movement. The main finding was the number of young adults who switched from Medicaid to individual insurance — and the other direction as well.

The Commonwealth Fund: Who Entered and Exited the Individual Health Insurance Market Before and After the Affordable Care Act?

Commonwealth also conducted a forum on “Being Seriously Ill in America,” which dealt with the financial consequences.

Forbes likes to compile those “30 under 30” lists. (I’ve long wished someone would go back and look at one of those lists from 20 or 25 years ago to see how the luminaries are doing now.) Anyway, it put together a list of people in the health care industry. Most are on the cusp of 30, which might tell you something about how hard it is to get a fast start in the industry. But one person on the honor roll is only 18. In case you were wondering, because I was, Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the ill-fated Theranos, was on a different “40 under 40” Forbes list in 2014. We hope these folks fare better.

Forbes: 30 Under 30 in Healthcare

This article ran a while back, but I got a kick out of it and just had to mention it. It looked at prehistoric health care. Researchers will never know how much Stone Age dwellers bored their hut mates with discussions of a paleo diet, but they are learning how they performed medical procedures that appeared to have worked.

The Atlantic: Neanderthals Suffered a Lot of Traumatic Injuries. So How Did They Live So Long?

May you survive another whirlwind week of health care news, until next Friday’s breezy recap.

Medicare Cuts Payments To Nursing Homes Whose Patients Keep Ending Up In Hospital

The federal government has taken a new step to reduce avoidable hospital readmissions of nursing home patients by lowering a year’s worth of payments to nearly 11,000 nursing homes. It gave bonuses to nearly 4,000 others.

These financial incentives, determined by each home’s readmission rates, significantly expand Medicare’s effort to pay medical providers based on the quality of care instead of just the number or condition of their patients. Until now, Medicare limited these kinds of incentives mostly to hospitals, which have gotten used to facing financial repercussions if too many of their patients are readmitted, suffer infections or other injuries, or die.

“To some nursing homes, it could mean a significant amount of money,” said Thomas Martin, director of post-acute care analytics at CarePort Health, which works for both hospitals and nursing homes. “A lot are operating on very small margins.”

The new Medicare program is altering a year’s worth of payments to 14,959 skilled nursing facilities based on how often their residents ended up back in hospitals within 30 days of leaving. Hospitalizations of nursing home residents, while decreasing in recent years, remain a problem, with nearly 11 percent of patients in 2016 being sent to hospitals for conditions that might have been averted with better medical oversight.

These bonuses and penalties are also intended to discourage nursing homes from discharging patients too quickly — something that is financially tempting as Medicare fully covers only the first 20 days of a stay and generally stops paying anything after 100 days.

Over this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1 and goes through the end of September 2019, the best-performing homes will receive 1.6 percent more for each Medicare patient than they would have otherwise. The worst-performing homes will lose nearly 2 percent of each payment. The others will fall in between. (You can see the scores for individual nursing facilities here.)

For-profit nursing homes, which make up two-thirds of the nation’s facilities, face deeper cuts on average than do nonprofit and government-owned homes, a Kaiser Health News analysis of the data found.

In Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, 85 percent of homes will lose money, the analysis found. More than half in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington state will get bonuses.

Overall, 10,976 nursing homes will be penalized, 3,983 will get bonuses, and the remainder will not experience any change in payment, the KHN analysis found.

(Story continues below.)

Medicare is lowering payments to 12 of the 15 nursing homes run by Otterbein SeniorLife, an Ohio faith-based nonprofit. Pamela Richmond, Otterbein’s chief strategy officer, said most of its readmissions occurred with patients after they went home, not while they were in the facilities. Otterbein anticipates losing $99,000 over the year.

“We’re super disappointed,” Richmond said about the penalties. She said Otterbein is starting to follow up with former patients or the home health agencies that send nurses and aides to their houses to care for them. If there are signs of trouble, Otterbein will try to arrange care or bring patients back to the nursing home if necessary.

“This really puts the emphasis on us to go out and coordinate better care after they leave,” Richmond said.

Congress created the Skilled Nursing Facility Value-Based Purchasing Program incentives in the 2014 Protecting Access to Medicare Act. In assigning bonuses and penalties, Medicare judged each facility’s performances in two ways: how its hospitalization rates in calendar year 2017 compared with other facilities and how much those rates changed from calendar year 2015.

Facilities received scores of 0 to 100 for their performances and 0 to 90 for their improvements, and the higher of the two scores was used to determine their overall score. Facilities were then ranked highest to lowest.

Medicare is not measuring readmission rates of patients who are insured through private Medicare Advantage plans, even though in some regions the majority of Medicare beneficiaries rely on those to afford their care.

Through the incentives, Medicare will redistribute $316 million from poorer-performing to better-performing nursing homes. Medicare expects it will keep another $211 million that it would have otherwise paid to nursing homes if the program did not exist.

The new payments augment other pressures nursing homes face from Medicare and state Medicaid programs to lower readmissions to hospitals.

“Skilled facilities have been working toward this and knew it was coming,” said Nicole Fallon, vice president of health policy and integrated services at LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit providers of aging services.

The American Health Care Association, a trade group of nursing homes, said in a statement that it had supported the program and was gratified to see that more than a quarter of facilities received bonuses.

While most researchers believe that readmissions can be reduced, some consumer advocates fear that nursing homes will be reluctant to admit very infirm residents or to re-hospitalize patients even when they need medical care.

“It may end up causing great pain to residents who actually need to be hospitalized,” said Patricia McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, which is based in San Francisco.

Fallon said Medicare eventually may penalize homes that have done all they can to prevent return trips to the hospital. But because of the program’s design by Congress, Medicare still will need to punish large numbers of homes.

“There’s always going to be winners and losers, even if you make good progress,” Fallon said. “At what point have we achieved all we can achieve?”

Meanwhile, Medicare is looking to expand financial incentives to other kinds of providers. Since 2016, it has been testing quality bonuses and penalties for home health agencies in nine states. Richmond, the nursing home executive, applauded that kind of expansion.

‘There’s a whole bunch of people in this chain” of institutions caring for patients at different stages, she said, “and we all need to be working in a common direction.”

KHN data editor Elizabeth Lucas contributed to this report.


KHN’s coverage related to aging and improving care of older adults is supported in part by The John A. Hartford Foundation.

Feds Order More Weekend Inspections Of Nursing Homes To Catch Understaffing

The federal government announced plans Friday to crack down on nursing homes with abnormally low weekend staffing by requiring more surprise inspections be done on Saturdays and Sundays.

The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said it will identify nursing homes for which payroll records indicate low weekend staffing or that they operate without a registered nurse. Medicare will instruct state inspectors to focus on those potential violations during visits.

“Since nurse staffing is directly related to the quality of care that residents experience, CMS is very concerned about the risk to resident health and safety that these situations may present,” the agency said in a notification to state inspection offices.

The directive comes after a Kaiser Health News analysis found there are 11 percent fewer nurses providing direct care on weekends on average, and 8 percent fewer aides.

Residents and their families frequently complain the residents have trouble getting basic help — such as assistance going to the bathroom — on weekends. One nursing home resident in upstate New York compared his facility to a weekend “ghost town” because of the paucity of workers.

Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, an advocacy group in Manhattan, welcomed the new edict but said it was only necessary because state inspectors have not been properly enforcing the rules already on the books.

“The basic problem is the states don’t take this seriously,” Mollot said. “How many studies do we have to have, year after year, decade after decade, saying it all comes down to staffing, and there are very few citations for inadequate staffing and virtually all of them are identified as not causing any resident harm?”

CMS said it will identify potential violators by analyzing payroll records that nursing homes are now required to submit. Those records, which became public this year, showed lower staffing than what facilities had previously told inspectors during their visits, according to the KHN analysis.

“CMS takes very seriously our responsibility to protect the safety and quality of care for our beneficiaries,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement.

The nursing home industry criticized the heightened scrutiny.

“Unfortunately, today’s action by CMS will enforce policies that makes it even more difficult to meet regulatory requirements and hire staff,” said Dr. David Gifford, senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs at the American Health Care Association, an industry trade group, in a written statement. “Rather than taking proactive steps to address the national workforce shortage long-term care facilities are facing, CMS seems to be focusing on a punitive approach that will penalize providers and make it harder to hire staff to meet the shared goal of increasing staffing.”

Currently, a tenth of inspections must occur during “off hours,” which can be either a weekend, or during a weekday before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m. But for facilities that Medicare identifies as having lower weekend staffing, half of those off-hour inspections—or 5 percent of the total — must be performed on Saturdays or Sundays.

Medicare requires nursing homes to have a registered nurse on site for at least eight hours every day, but according to the payroll records, a quarter of nursing homes reported no registered nurses available at least one day during a three-month period. Since July, Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare website for consumers has highlighted homes that lack sufficient registered nurses and lowered their star ratings. Nursing Home Compare has downgraded ratings for 1,402 of 15,600 facilities for gaps in registered nurse staffing, records show.

The new directive instructs inspectors to more thoroughly evaluate staffing at facilities Medicare flags. The edict does not mean a flurry of sudden inspections. Instead, Medicare wants heightened focus on those nursing homes when inspectors come for their standard reviews, which take place roughly once a year for most facilities.

But what may appear to be staffing scarcities in payroll records may instead be clerical problems in which nurse hours are not properly recorded, say some nursing home officials.

Katie Smith Sloan, president of LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit providers of aging services, said in a statement that some homes are still struggling to adapt to the new data collection rules.

“We’ve been voicing our concerns to CMS and will continue to do so,” she said.


KHN’s coverage of these topics is supported by
John A. Hartford Foundation
and
The SCAN Foundation

Bajo Trump, aumenta el número de niños sin cobertura médica por primera vez en años

Después de años de disminución constante, en 2017, unos 276.000 niños se sumaron a las filas de los menores sin seguro de salud, según un nuevo informe de la Universidad de Georgetown.

Aunque en términos estadísticos no es un gran salto -la proporción de niños sin seguro llegó a 5% en 2017, comparado con 4.7% el año anterior- todavía es sorprendente. La tasa de no asegurados por lo general se mantiene estable o cae en tiempos de crecimiento económico. En septiembre, la tasa de desempleo en los Estados Unidos alcanzó su nivel más bajo desde 1969.

“La nación está retrocediendo en el camino por asegurar a los niños, y es probable que esto empeore”, dijo Joan Alker, coautora del estudio y directora ejecutiva del Centro para Niños y Familias de Georgetown.

Alker y otros defensores de la salud infantil culpan de este cambio a la administración Trump y al Congreso controlado por los republicanos, porque dicen que sus políticas y acciones han obstaculizado la inscripción para tener seguro.

De acuerdo con datos del Censo analizados por Georgetown, la cantidad de niños sin cobertura aumentó a 3.9 millones en 2017, de aproximadamente 3.6 millones el año anterior.

Los niños hispanos siguen siendo los que tienen la tasa más alta de no asegurados: 7,8%, en comparación con el 4,9% entre los blancos no hispanos y el 4,6% entre las personas de raza negra no hispanas. (Los hispanos pueden ser de cualquier raza).

La tasa general de personas sin seguro en todas las edades, que cayó de 2013 a 2016 luego de la implementación de la Ley de Cuidado de Salud Asequible (ACA), se mantuvo sin cambios: 8.8% el año pasado.

La proporción de niños con cobertura patrocinada por el empleador aumentó modestamente en 2017, pero no lo suficiente como para compensar la disminución de niños que se inscriben en Medicaid o que obtienen cobertura a través de los mercados de seguros del Obamacare, dijo Alker.

Si bien ningún estado logró frenar esta baja, nueve experimentaron aumentos importantes de niños sin cobertura médica. El mayor fue Dakota del Sur (de 4.7% a 6.2%), Utah (de 6% a 7.3%) y Texas (de 9.8% a 10.7%).

Más de 1 de cada 5 niños sin seguro en el país vive en Texas, aproximadamente 835,000 niños. Por lejos, el número más alto entre todos los estados.

En Florida vivían 325,000 niños sin seguro el año pasado, ya que la tasa de no asegurados para ese grupo de edad aumentó 0.7 puntos porcentuales, a 7.3%. California tenía 301,000 niños sin seguro, aunque su número se mantuvo prácticamente sin cambios, en comparación con el año anterior.

Otros estados con aumentos significativos fueron Georgia, Carolina del Sur, Ohio, Tennessee y Massachusetts.

Las tasas de niños sin seguro de salud aumentaron casi el triple en los estados que no expandieron Medicaid bajo ACA, según el informe. Los estudios han demostrado que los niños cuyos padres están asegurados tienen más probabilidades de tener cobertura.

Georgetown ha estado siguiendo estas cifras desde 2008, cuando 7,6 millones de niños, alrededor del 10%, no tenían de cobertura de salud.

Debido a que casi todos los niños de bajos ingresos son elegibles para Medicaid o para el Programa de Seguro de Salud Infantil (CHIP), el desafío es asegurarse de que los padres reciban información sobre estos programas, averigüen si son elegibles, los inscriban y los mantengan registrados, dijo Alker.

El Congreso tardó varios meses en aprobar el financiamiento del programa CHIP en 2017, por lo que muchos estados tuvieron que alertar a los consumidores sobre posibles congelamientos en la inscripción. El Congreso restauró la financiación federal a principios de 2018.

Además, el año pasado, las familias de bajos ingresos fueron bombardeadas por noticias sobre la intención del Congreso de derogar la ley de salud, que logró extender la cobertura a millones de personas. En los últimos dos años, la administración Trump ha recortado los fondos para los navegadores del Obamacare, que ayudan a las personas a inscribirse para tener seguro de salud.

Alker también señalo como algo negativo la propuesta de septiembre de la administración Trump, conocida como “carga pública”, que podría dificultar que los inmigrantes con papeles obtengan la residencia permanente (Green card o tarjeta verde) si recibieron ciertos tipos de asistencia pública, incluidos Medicaid, cupones de alimentos y subsidios para la vivienda. La tarjeta verde les permite vivir y trabajar permanentemente en los Estados Unidos.

OLE Health, un gran proveedor de servicios de salud con sede en Napa Valley, California, que atiende a muchos inmigrantes, dijo que ha visto a los pacientes retirarse de Medicaid en el último año. La directora ejecutiva, Alicia Hardy, dijo que muchos han abandonado la cobertura por temor a que la ayuda pueda poner en peligro su estatus migratorio.

“Tienen miedo de ser deportados”, dijo.

Estos eventos pueden haber influenciado para que las familias sacaran a los niños de las coberturas. “La alfombra de bienvenida ha sido retirada y, como resultado, vemos más niños sin seguro”, agregó Alker.

Y concluyó que la forma más fácil de cambiar la tendencia sería que más estados expandieran Medicaid. Catorce estados aún tienen que hacerlo. Aunque la expansión impacta en gran medida a los adultos, cuando los padres se inscriben, es probable que también inscriban a sus hijos.

La cobertura de KHN de los problemas de salud de los niños es apoyada en parte por la Fundación Heising-Simons.

Under Trump, Number Of Uninsured Kids Rose For First Time This Decade

After years of steady decline, the number of U.S. children without health insurance rose by 276,000 in 2017, according to a Georgetown University report released Thursday.

While not a big jump statistically — the share of uninsured kids rose to 5 percent in 2017 from 4.7 percent a year earlier — it is still striking. The uninsured rate typically remains stable or drops during times of economic growth. In September, the U.S. unemployment rate hit its lowest level since 1969.

“The nation is going backwards on insuring kids and it is likely to get worse,” said Joan Alker, co-author of the study and executive director of Georgetown’s Center for Children and Families.

Alker and other child health advocates place the blame for this change on the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, saying their policies and actions cast a pall on enrollment.

The number of children without coverage rose to 3.9 million in 2017 from about 3.6 million a year earlier, according to Census data analyzed by Georgetown.

The overall uninsured rate for people of all ages — which plummeted from 2013 to 2016 following the health law’s implementation — remained unchanged at 8.8 percent last year.

The share of children with employer-sponsored coverage rose modestly in 2017, but not by enough to make up for the drop in children enrolling in Medicaid or getting coverage from Obamacare insurance exchanges, Alker said.

While no states made any significant gains in lowering children’s uninsured rate, nine states experienced significant increases. The biggest occurred in South Dakota (up from 4.7 percent to 6.2 percent), Utah (up from 6 percent to 7.3 percent) and Texas (from 9.8 percent to 10.7 percent).

More than 1 in 5 uninsured children nationwide live in Texas — about 835,000 kids — by far the highest number of any state.

Florida had 325,000 uninsured children last year, as its uninsured rate for that age group rose 0.7 percentage points to 7.3 percent. California had 301,000 children without insurance, though its number remained virtually unchanged, relative to the previous year.

Other states with significant increases were Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Massachusetts.

The uninsured rates for children increased at nearly triple the rates in states that did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, according to the report. Studies have shown that children whose parents are insured are more likely to have coverage.

The uninsured rate among Hispanic children was 7.8 percent, compared with 4.9 percent among whites and 4.6 percent among blacks overall. (Hispanics can be of any race.)

Georgetown has been tracking these figures since 2008 when 7.6 million children — or about 10 percent of kids — lacked health coverage.

Because nearly all low-income children are eligible for Medicaid or the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, the challenge is making sure parents are aware of the programs, getting them enrolled and keeping them signed up as long as they are eligible, Alker said.

Congress let the CHIP program funding lapse for several months in 2017, putting states in a position of having to warn consumers that they would soon have to freeze enrollment. Congress restored federal funding in early in 2018.

In addition, low-income families were bombarded by news reports last year of Congress threatening to repeal the health law that expanded coverage to millions. In the past two years, the Trump administration has slashed funding to Obamacare navigators to help people sign up for coverage.

Alker also pointed to the Trump administration’s September proposal, known as the “public charge” rule, which could make it harder for legal immigrants to get green cards if they have received certain kinds of public assistance — including Medicaid, food stamps and housing subsidies. Green cards allow them to live and work permanently in the United States.

OLE Health, a large health provider based in Napa Valley, Calif., that serves many immigrants, said it has seen patients disenroll from Medicaid in the past year. CEO Alicia Hardy said many have dropped coverage over fears the help could jeopardize their immigration status.

“They are afraid of being deported,” she said.

All those events could have deterred families from getting their kids covered. “The welcome mat has been pulled back and as a result we see more uninsured children,” Alker said.

She said the easiest way to change the trend would be for more states to expand Medicaid under the health law. Fourteen states have yet to do so. Though the expansion largely affects adults, as parents enroll, their children are likely to follow.


KHN’s coverage of children’s health care issues is supported in part by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Chronically Ill, Traumatically Billed: The $123,000 Medicine For MS

Shereese Hickson’s multiple sclerosis was flaring again. Spasms in her legs and other symptoms were getting worse.

She could still walk and take care of her son six years after doctors diagnosed the disease, which attacks the central nervous system. Earlier symptoms such as slurred speech and vision problems had resolved with treatment, but others lingered: she was tired and sometimes still fell.

This summer, a doctor switched her to Ocrevus, a drug approved in 2017 that delayed progression of the disease in clinical trials better than an older medicine did.

Genentech, a South San Francisco-based subsidiary of Swiss pharma giant Roche, makes Ocrevus. It is one of several drugs for multiple sclerosis delivered intravenously in a hospital or clinic. Such medicines have become increasingly expensive as a group, priced in many cases at well over $80,000 a year. Hospitals delivering the drugs often take a cut by upcharging the drug or adding hefty fees for the infusion clinic.

Hickson received her first two Ocrevus infusions as an outpatient two weeks apart in July and August. And then the bill came.

Patient: Shereese Hickson, 39, single mother who worked as a health aide and trained as a medical coder, living in Girard, Ohio. Because her MS has left her too disabled to work, she is now on Medicare; she also has Medicaid for backup.

Total Bill: $123,019 for two Ocrevus infusions taken as an outpatient. CareSource, Hickson’s Medicare managed-care plan, paid a discounted $28,960. Hickson got a bill for about $3,620, the balance calculated as her share by the hospital after the insurance reimbursement.

Medical Service: Two Ocrevus infusions, each requiring several hours at the hospital.

Service Provider: Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit, academic medical center in Ohio.

What Gives: Hickson researched Ocrevus online after her doctor prescribed the new medicine. “I’ve seen people’s testimonies about how great it is,” on YouTube, she said. “But I don’t think they really go into what it’s like receiving the bill.”

That was particularly shocking because, covered by government insurance for her disability, she’d never received a bill for MS medicine before.

“I have a 9-year-old son and my income is $770 a month,” said Hickson. “How am I supposed to support him and then you guys are asking me for $3,000?”

Even in a world of soaring drug prices, multiple sclerosis medicines stand out. Over two decades ending in 2013, costs for MS medicines rose at annual rates five to seven times higher than those for prescription drugs generally, found a study by researchers at Oregon Health & Science University.

“There was no competition on price that was occurring,” said Daniel Hartung, the OHSU and Oregon State University professor who led the study. “It appeared to be the opposite. As newer drugs were brought to market, it promoted increased escalation in drug prices.”

With Ocrevus, Genentech did come up with a price that was slightly less than for rival drugs, but only after MS medicines were already extremely expensive. The drug launched last year at an annual list price of $65,000, about 25 percent lower than that of other MS drugs, Hartung said. MS drugs cost about $10,000 per year in the 1990s and about $30,000 a decade ago.

“We set the price of Ocrevus to reduce price as a barrier to treatment,” said Genentech spokeswoman Amanda Fallon.

It was also probably a response to bad publicity about expensive MS drugs, Hartung said. “Now companies are very aware at least of the optics of releasing drugs at higher and higher prices,” he said.

Patients starting Ocrevus get two initial infusions of 300 milligrams each and then 600 mg twice a year. Cleveland Clinic charged $117,089 for Hickson’s first two doses of Ocrevus — more than three times what hospitals typically pay for the drug, said John Hennessy, chief business development officer at WellRithms, a firm that analyzes medical bills for self-insured employers.

As is typical of government programs such as Medicare, the $28,960 reimbursement ultimately collected by the Cleveland Clinic was far less — but still substantial.

“We kind of got ourselves in a pickle here,” he said. “We’re more excited about the discount than we are about the actual price.”

Hickson’s nearly $3,620 bill represented the portion that Medicare patients often are expected to pay themselves.

Shereese Hickson, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2012 and unable to work, supports herself and her son, Isaiah, on $770 a month.(Shane Wynn for KHN)

Last year, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, an independent nonprofit that evaluates medical treatments, completed a detailed study on MS medicines. It found that Ocrevus was one of three or four medicines that were most effective in reducing MS relapses and preventing MS from getting worse. But it also found that patient benefits from MS drugs “come at a high relative cost” to society.

At the same time, deciding which MS drug — there are about a dozen — would best suit patients is something of a shot in the dark: The science showing the comparative effectiveness of MS drugs is not as strong as it could be, researchers say.

“In general, there’s a real lack of head-to-head studies for many of these drugs,” said Hartung. The FDA has no required comparison standard for MS drugs, an agency spokeswoman said. Sometimes they’re rated against placebos. With everyone able to charge a high price, the companies have little incentive to see which works better and which worse.

Resolution: After Hickson questioned the charges over the phone, the billing office told her to apply to the hospital for financial assistance. Hickson had to print a form, provide proof of her disabled status, mail it and wait.

Hospital officials told her in October she qualified for assistance based on her income through a state program funded by hospital contributions and federal money. Cleveland Clinic wiped out the $3,620 balance.

“I’m grateful that they approved me for that, but not everybody’s situation is like that,” she said. She was worried enough about being billed again for her next Ocrevus infusion that she considered switching back to her old medicine. But her doctor wants her to give it more time to gauge its effects.

The Takeaway: Always ask about charity care or financial assistance programs. Hospitals have different policies and wide discretion about how to apply them, but often do not even tell patients such programs exist.

Because health care costs are so high, you may be eligible even if you have a decent salary. Cleveland Clinic gives free care to everybody below a certain income, said spokeswoman Heather Phillips. But it wasn’t until Hickson called that the hospital agreed to erase the charge.

While there are multiple new drugs to treat serious chronic conditions, they have often not been tested against one another. Moreover, your doctor may have no idea about their relative prices. He or she should. For newer drugs, all options may well be very expensive.

Keep in mind that drugs which must be infused often come with facility fees and infusion charges, which can leave patients with hefty copayments for outpatient treatment. Ask about oral medicines or those you can self-inject at home.

NPR produced and edited the interview with Elisabeth Rosenthal for broadcast. Marlene Harris-Taylor, from member station Ideastream in Cleveland, provided audio reporting.

Do you have an exorbitant or baffling medical bill? Join the KHN and NPR Bill-of-the-Month Club and tell us about your experience.


KHN’s coverage of women’s health care issues is supported in part by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.