COVID

Lower MA, Individual Enrollment Estimates Dim Cigna 4Q Earnings

Although Cigna Corp. ended 2021 with earnings that exceeded Wall Street expectations, the company also reported continued struggles with elevated medical costs last year. Further, the insurer disclosed that it expects less Medicare Advantage growth than it originally anticipated in 2022 and a decline in individual/family plan enrollment.

For the fourth quarter of 2021, Cigna reported adjusted earnings per share (EPS) of $4.77, beating the consensus estimate of $4.50. Cigna’s full-year adjusted EPS was $20.47, reflecting year-over-year growth of 11% that the company said was largely driven by the Evernorth health services segment.

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News Briefs: CMS Proposes 8% Pay Hike for Medicare Advantage Plans

CMS on Feb. 2 released the 2023 preliminary rate notice for Medicare Advantage plans, giving plans an average pay boost of about 8%. To arrive at an expected average change in revenue of 7.98% for 2023, CMS factored in an effective growth rate of 4.75%, which is based largely on an anticipated rise in fee-for-service Medicare costs, according to a CMS fact sheet on the subject.

Medicare Part B beneficiaries will be able to acquire over-the-counter COVID-19 tests free of charge at participating pharmacies and retailers “starting in early spring,” according to CMS. Per a CMS fact sheet, beneficiaries will not need to apply for reimbursement to get the tests: “Eligible pharmacies and other entities that are participating in this initiative to allow Medicare beneficiaries to pick up tests at no cost at the point of sale and without needing to be reimbursed.” AHIP CEO Matt Eyles applauded the move. “This is a commendable model and the right path — for Medicare-eligible people and for all Americans — to ensure equitable access, swift treatment, and an effective response to the virus,” he said in a statement.

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News Briefs: CMS Says It Found a Way to Cover Medicare Beneficiaries’ At-Home COVID Tests

CMS on Feb. 3 said it is working on an initiative to enable Medicare coverage of over-the-counter (OTC) COVID tests in early spring. The administration in January issued guidance requiring group and individual health plans to reimburse members for up to eight at-home COVID tests per month without cost sharing. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and 18 other senators on Jan. 24 wrote to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure urging them to extend the same access to Medicare enrollees. And in a bipartisan letter issued Jan. 20, House representatives made a similar request. Despite several issues that complicated CMS’s efforts to cover the tests, the agency said it has “identified a pathway that will expand access to free over-the-counter testing for Medicare beneficiaries.”

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Anthem Reports Solid End to 2021, Offers Initial Look at 2022

Health insurer Anthem, Inc., reported solid fourth-quarter results on Jan. 26, with some numbers in line with expectations and others hitting above or below expectations. The company also indicated it’s bracing for medical costs to rise above normal levels this year amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis — though perhaps not as much as in 2021.

Anthem reported $5.14 in adjusted earnings per share (EPS) for the quarter, beating the consensus of $5.11. “EPS appears to be aided by better-than-expected investment income to the tune of $0.42, which grew $23% [year over year],” Jefferies analyst David Windley wrote in a Jan. 26 note to investors.

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Ivermectin for COVID Costs Insurers Millions Despite Lack of Clinical Evidence

Insurers have paid millions of dollars to cover the cost of anti-parasitic drug ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment even though there is no evidence that it’s actually effective against the disease, according to a new JAMA study. By analyzing claims from December 2020 through March 2021, the researchers found that patients with private insurance spent, on average, $22.48 per ivermectin prescription with insurers reimbursing an average of $35.75, for a total cost of $58.23. Patients with Medicare Advantage spent an average of $13.78, while their health plans reimbursed $39.13, for a total average cost of $52.91 per script. The study also estimated that health plans paid $2.5 million for COVID-related ivermectin prescriptions just in the week of Aug. 13, 2021; extrapolating that over the course of a year, such spending could add up to $129.7 million.

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UnitedHealth Downplays Cost of Omicron, At-Home Tests

For health insurers, the new year has ushered in a mandate to cover at-home COVID-19 tests and a highly transmissible coronavirus variant that is making it clear the pandemic is far from over. During its recent conference call to discuss fourth-quarter 2021 financial results, UnitedHealth Group explained how its massive, integrated health care enterprise is responding to both challenges.

The Biden administration on Jan. 10 unveiled new guidance specifying that all group and individual health plans must reimburse members for eight free over-the-counter COVID tests per month without cost sharing. The administration also said it would allow insurers to cap test costs at $12 each if insurers set up in-network agreements with pharmacies/retail stores that allow members to access free tests directly, without filing for reimbursement.

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News Briefs: HHS Renews Public Health Emergency | Jan. 21, 2022

HHS Sec. Xavier Becerra renewed the COVID-19 pandemic public health emergency until April 16, extending the PHE that was first announced on Jan. 31, 2020, by then-HHS Sec. Alex Azar into its third year. The PHE declaration makes possible enhanced Medicaid funding — in exchange for states pausing eligibility redeterminations — and expanded telehealth flexibilities for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

New insurer entry into the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges is slowing down after several boom years, according to a new Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report. “While the total number of plan offerings increased by about one third between 2020 and 2021 (from 10,289 to 13,596), this year’s increase to 15,638 constitutes growth of about 15 percent,” wrote Katherine Hempstead, Ph.D., senior policy adviser for the foundation.

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As Omicron Surges, U.S. Struggles With Booster Rate

On Jan. 10, the U.S. reported 1.35 million new coronavirus cases as the highly contagious Omicron variant swept across the nation, breaking the previous daily record of 1.03 million. While a COVID-19 vaccine booster could increase immune response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data show that only 36.7% of fully vaccinated people have received a booster dose nationwide, as of Jan. 11, 2022. Doubling the pace of booster vaccinations per day could prevent more than 41,000 deaths and 400,000 hospitalizations by the end of April, according to a recent analysis by The Commonwealth Fund.

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As Medicaid Enrollment Soars, States Ask MCOs to Intensify Social Determinants of Health Efforts

States are moving to better address social determinants of health (SDOH) and improve health equity in their Medicaid programs, and they’re asking MCOs to drive the change, according to an analysis of recent requests for proposals (RFPs) from advocacy group Together for Better Medicaid. The report identified RFPs from 10 states that have extensive SDOH and equity-based requirements for MCOs, from member screenings and staff training to close collaboration with community-based organizations (CBOs). Meanwhile, Medicaid enrollment has surged in all 10 states amid the COVID-19 pandemic. National Medicaid enrollment climbed 18.4% from March 2020 to December 2021, according to AIS’s Directory of Health Plans. See an overview of the most common SDOH requirements and the 10 states’ recent enrollment patterns below.

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Experts, Insurers Sound Off About COVID Test Payment Guidance

The Biden administration on Jan. 10 issued much-anticipated details about its new requirements for private health plans to pay for at-home COVID-19 tests, sparking immediate questions from industry observers and insurer trade groups alike about whether this is the right way to go about expanding testing access.

“We absolutely agree that a comprehensive national testing strategy is desperately needed and overdue,” says Ceci Connolly, president and CEO of the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP). Members of the organization representing nonprofit health plans have been covering physician-ordered, lab-based tests — as required by pandemic relief legislation — throughout the public health emergency, she tells AIS Health, a division of MMIT. “Unfortunately, this approach runs the risk of confusing a lot of people, frustrating people who probably have trouble getting tests and probably not reaching the target audiences. So it misses the mark.”

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