Reimbursement

Insurers Are Helping Patients, Providers Deal With Medical Debt

Although fewer Americans are dealing with medical-related financial hardships since the coronavirus pandemic began, the percentage is still high and could rise further as Medicaid redeterminations resume, major Affordable Care Act subsidy expansions expire and inflation eats away at people’s incomes and savings. To that end, payers are implementing ways to ease the burden of high out-of-pocket costs for patients and to help providers improve their collections, even as one expert calls the services a “Band-Aid attempt to cover the widening healthcare affordability gap.”

An Urban Institute report published on May 11 found that 16.8% of adults from 18 to 64 years old had medical debt in April 2021, down from 23.6% in March 2019. The Urban Institute cited several potential reasons for the decline, including a reduction in health care utilization, pandemic relief measures and growth in Medicaid enrollment.

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Study: With High Prices, Rebate Revenue Is Growing for PBMs

New research published in JAMA Health Forum found that rebate revenue for PBMs grew between 2015 and 2019 — but that growing rebate revenue was not passed on to patients.

The research letter’s authors measured both prerebate and postrebate drug costs taken from medical loss ratio (MLR) filings made by plans to CMS. The research sample includes commercial insurance filings from small group, individual and large group health plans across “approximately 2,200 unique health plans” covering 70 million lives.

OIG Report on Prior Authorization Denials Puts Pressure on CMS

As Medicare Advantage insurers face increasing scrutiny from lawmakers over coding practices and a pending pay boost of 8.5% next year, a new HHS Office of Inspector General report on rates of prior authorization and payment denials in MA doesn’t do much to help their case. Although it was based on just a weeklong sample of denial cases, the report adds to a growing body of evidence that the prior authorization process in MA is ripe for improvement and in need of either more guidance from CMS and/or stronger oversight.

Receiving widespread coverage at press time, starting with a New York Times article summarizing it as “saying that insurers deny tens of thousands of authorization requests annually,” OIG on April 28 released a report titled, “Some Medicare Advantage Organization Denials of Prior Authorization Requests Raise Concerns About Beneficiary Access to Medically Necessary Care.” The report immediately drew praise from providers, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), which issued a statement agreeing with federal investigators’ recommendations on reining in inappropriate denials. But AMA argued that more needs to be done, such as passing a bipartisan bill that aims to establish new electronic prior authorization (PA) requirements on MA insurers.

PBM Critics Increasingly Take Their Grievances to Court

As scrutiny on PBMs continues, various stakeholders are turning to the legal system to challenge the business practices of major firms.

Centene Corp. has been the target of the most litigation, having now reached settlements with nine state attorneys general over allegations that its PBM subsidiary Envolve overcharged those states’ Medicaid programs for prescription drugs, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company has set aside $1.25 billion to fund those settlements and potential future lawsuits, and it is in the process of restructuring its PBM holdings.

News Briefs: Humana Wins in Rite Aid Reimbursement Dispute

AllianceRx Walgreens Prime — a specialty and home delivery pharmacy business owned by Walgreens Boots Alliance — is rebranding to AllianceRx Walgreens Pharmacy. The move comes after Walgreens assumed full ownership of the business; previously, it was a joint venture between Walgreens and the PBM Prime Therapeutics. In addition to the company’s name change, it promoted Tracey James, R.Ph., from the role of senior vice president to chief operating officer.

Rite Aid Corp. must pay Humana Inc. $123 million after an arbitrator found that the retail pharmacy chain inflated reimbursement claims above the “usual and customary” prices for drugs, Stat reported. Rite Aid’s rival Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. faces a similar lawsuit brought by several Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliates. In both cases, the payers allege that the pharmacy chain systematically charged the health plans inflated prices for generic prescription fills. The health plans claim that their contracts with the pharmacies entitled them to reimburse the pharmacies for drug fills at the lowest price that the pharmacies charged for the drug in question, an arrangement called “usual and customary” pricing. However, the health plans say that the pharmacies charged cash-paying customers less than the “usual and customary” price submitted to health plans for reimbursement. Rite Aid plans to ask a federal court to vacate the arbitrator’s decision in the Humana case, per Stat, while the Walgreens-Blues suit is pending.

News Briefs: Lawmakers Urge CMS to Rethink 8.5% Medicare Advantage Plan Rate Increase

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other progressive lawmakers wrote CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure asking the agency to reconsider recently finalized policies that would lead to an average revenue increase of 8.5% for Medicare Advantage plans next year. Citing the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission’s March 2022 Report to the Congress, lawmakers wrote that MA plans last year were paid 4% more per enrollee than fee-for-service Medicare, even though the program was designed to generate savings by paying insurers rates set at 95% of those used by FFS Medicare. “To preserve Medicare and its Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund, we urge CMS to mitigate the announced payment increases for Medicare Advantage plans so they are on par with payments to fee-for-service Traditional Medicare and take additional steps to address overpayments and increase transparency in the Medicare Advantage program,” they wrote on April 20.

News Briefs: Express Scripts Wins Anthem Lawsuit

The long-running lawsuit between Anthem, Inc. and Express Scripts — over whether the PBM now owned by Cigna Corp. overcharged Anthem for prescription drugs — has finally concluded. Anthem first sued Express Scripts in 2016, alleging primarily that the PBM failed to honor its contractual agreement to provide “competitive benchmark pricing” for prescription drugs and thus owed the insurer $14.8 billion in damages. Ultimately, Judge Edgardo Ramos dismissed most of Anthem’s claims, finding that the companies’ contract did not “obligate Express Scripts to provide competitive benchmark pricing, but merely to negotiate in good faith in the event that Anthem’s market analysis shows non-competitive pricing.”

MAOs Anticipate All-In Pay Increase of 8.5%, Await Final Rule

Perhaps the biggest headline from the largely uneventful 2023 final rate notice for Medicare Advantage and Part D plans is that they will, on average, receive a slightly higher-than-anticipated pay bump next year. Also, risk scores will not be reduced by any more than the statutory minimum adjustment of 5.9%. However, MAOs are still waiting on the final version of an MA and Part D rule containing some provisions that could impact 2023 bids, and sources at press time suggested its release was imminent.

With the April 4 release of the 2023 Rate Announcement, CMS finalized most aspects of its rate proposal for next year but increased the effective growth rate from 4.75% to 4.88%, bringing the expected average change in revenue to 8.50% — one of the highest updates in recent history. CMS maintained an estimated risk score coding trend of 3.5% and a fee-for-service normalization factor — which is used to offset the trend in risk scores and keep the FFS risk score at the same average level over time — of -0.81%. CMS also said it would continue to apply an across-the-board adjustment of 5.9% to offset the effects of higher levels of coding intensity in MA relative to FFS Medicare. That coding intensity adjustment generated much discussion in comment letters on the Advance Notice.

Walgreens Faces Another ‘Usual and Customary’ Fraud Suit

Several Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliates sued Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. on March 15, alleging that the retail pharmacy giant fraudulently overcharged them and their members for generic drugs over the course of “more than a decade.” The suit follows years of similar allegations from multiple payers, including federal health insurance programs. One legal expert tells AIS Health, a division of MMIT, that the current litigation has the potential to expose Walgreens to years of legal risk.

In the suit, three Blues affiliates — CareFirst, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana — allege that Walgreens systematically and fraudulently charged the health plans inflated prices for generic prescription fills. The health plans claim that their contracts with Walgreens entitled them to reimburse the pharmacy for drug fills at the lowest price that Walgreens charged for the drug in question, an arrangement called “usual and customary” pricing. The plans allege that, despite those agreements, Walgreens allowed members of its prescription drug savings club to pay less than Blues plan members for the same drug — and intentionally withheld information from the plans to avoid changing the usual and customary price.

MA Stakeholders Take Issue With Bevy of Risk-Related Proposals

From payment related to the growing number of Medicare Advantage enrollees with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) to the proposed exclusion of 2020 data from risk score assumptions, several commenters responding to the 2023 preliminary rate notice questioned various factors that will be used to determine MA plan reimbursement next year. And while AHIP and other MA stakeholders voiced strong support for CMS keeping the coding intensity adjustment at the statutory minimum for 2023, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) took the opportunity to reiterate its contention that MA organizations are overpaid and that the adjustment does not adequately account for the differences in coding between MAOs and fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare.

In the 2023 Advance Notice for MA and Part D plans, CMS said it intended to continue to apply an across-the-board adjustment of 5.9% — the statutory minimum — to offset the effects on MA risk scores of higher levels of coding intensity in MA relative to FFS. AHIP, in its March 4 letter to CMS, said it strongly supports retaining that overall risk score reduction but asked for more detail around CMS’s proposal to exclude 2020 data in its annual “FFS normalization” adjustment, its assumption that 2023 FFS risk scores would return to pre-pandemic trends, how it will incorporate 2021 utilization data into the normalization factor for 2024, and how CMS arrived at the MA risk score trend of 3.5% for 2023.